Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Thermos Physics
Name: Karen T
Status: student
Age: 14
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: 1999 

How does a thermos work?

First, you need to know what heat is. Heat is the rattling, wiggling motion of all the atoms that make up a substance. It's a form of motion energy, but special because the solid as a whole isn't going anywhere. How is that possible? Imagine a large crowd of people standing around, in line, perhaps, for concert tickets. They could be standing quietly or shoving and milling about, even though the crowd isn't going anywhere. It's like that with solid objects, which are really vast "crowds" of individual atoms, that may be quiet (cold) or may be milling around excitedly (hot).

A hot (jumpy) solid contains more energy per unit volume than a cold (quiet) solid. If we put a hot solid next to a cold, then some of the energy in the hot solid will flow into the cold solid. This is called the flow of heat.

OK, now we need to think about how heat flows from something hot (your hot chocolate inside your thermos) to something less hot (the atmosphere). There are three ways:

(1) CONDUCTION. If the hot solid is touching the cold solid, then jumpy (hot) atoms can bump against their quiet (cold) neighbor atoms, and if they do the hot guys get quieter and the cold guys heat up. Then the newly-hot-used-to-be-cold guys start heating up *their* neighbors, in turn, and so forth until the heat flows deep into the cold solid.

(2) CONVECTION. If the hot solid is not touching the cold solid, there will usually be some third material between the two. If the third material is also a solid, we just have conduction from hot to third material, and from third material to cold solid, category (1), already dealt with, phooey.

But if the third material is a liquid or gas, something new can happen. Suppose for the sake of argument the hot solid is on the bottom, the cold on top, and a liquid in between. This describes things like a saucepan on the stove or the inside of the Earth. A hot atom will jostle a neighbor cold atom in the liquid, heating it up. When a layer of liquid atoms near the hot solid are all jumping around, they take up more room, as you'd not be surprised to hear. That is, the liquid expands. When it expands, it weighs less per fluid ounce, quart or gallon than the cold liquid above it. Now, you know how light fluids (like oil) float to the top of heavier fluids (like water)? And hot gas (in a hot-air balloon or from a smokestack) rises up through colder gas? Same thing happens here. The hot fluid rises up to the surface, where it meets the cold solid, and gets cooled off. Then it sinks down, and starts the cycle all over again.

With convection you get very efficient cooling because the hot solid always has fresh cold material coming in. Almost all modern cooling systems -- for your car, refrigerator, A/C, etc. -- use convection of a ``refrigerant.''

You also get strong currents in the fluid. That's why there are currents in the ocean (which is heated by the Sun and the sea floor), currents (winds) in the Earth's atmosphere, which is heated by the Earth's surface, and currents in the Earth's mantle (it's heated by the Earth's core further inside) that lead to volcanos (when an up-traveling current of hot rock bursts up through the crust).

(3) RADIATION. A solid will also shake loose on occasion a little low frequency light, and when it does some energy escapes as the (invisible) infrared light, and the atoms cool down a bit. Radiative cooling is not very efficient, but when there is no material at all between the hot and cold solids, it's all there is. The Sun heats the Earth by radiation across the empty space between.

Now, how can we STOP heat flow, so your hot chocolate stays hot in the thermos? We do it three ways. First, we put an empty space between the hot and cold solids. So we make a bottle and put it inside a slightly bigger bottle, seal the gap, and suck out all the air. This is the thermos bottle. With no material in between, conduction and convection do not work. The bottle's made of glass because it's easy to seal glass up so there are no leaks (you just melt it a little). Finally, we try to slow down radiation by painting the inside of the outer bottle silver, so it reflects any radiation that falls on it from the inner bottle. Hence, a thermos bottle has a mirror (shiny) surface.


A thermos works just like a blanket or a Polystyrene foam cup: it puts a material that doesn't conduct heat very well between a cold thing and a hot thing. In most thermoses, the material that doesn't conduct heat very well is air at very low pressure--ideally, a vacuum.

Actually, they probably do something else as well. Hot things can give energy to nearby cold things in two ways: direct conduction, and radiation. In direct conduction, the jiggling molecules of the hot thing bump into the relatively quiet molecules of the cold thing and make them jiggle. If the hot thing can't touch the cold thing, direct conduction doesn't work, but the hot molecules could bump into nearby air molecules, which could then bump into their neighbors, etc. until somebody bumps into the cold thing and gives it some energy. Thermoses attempt to minimize this.

Hot things also radiate heat in the form of electromagnetic waves, like radio waves, infrared waves, light, etc. Thermoses also attempt to minimize this by reflecting infrared radiation. At least I think they do. If they don't, they should.

Tim Mooney

A thermos basically consists of a small inner bottle inside a slightly larger outer bottle. The space between the bottles is evacuated, so that it contains very few air molecules (or anything else). Heat is the kinetic energy (energy of movement) of molecules. One of the main ways heat is transferred between objects is by the fast molecules of the hotter object bumping into the slower molecules of the cooler object, making them move faster. With nothing between the two bottles, it is hard to transfer heat between them.

This does not completely eliminate heat transfer, because other mechanisms are still available. Chief among these are heat flow through the connection between the bottles (near the mouth), through the stopper, and heat transfer by infrared radiation. (All objects at temperatures higher than absolute zero emit infrared radiation, which itself contains energy. Hotter objects emit more energy through infrared than cooler objects. When an object emits infrared, some of its thermal energy is carried away by the infrared; when some other object absorbs the infrared, it gains the energy, raising its temperature. So, objects can attain thermal equilibrium even in a vacuum, bu exchanging infrared. This is slower than conduction and convection in air. Thermos bottles are coated with metal to help them reflect infrared, slowing down (but not stopping) this process as well.

Richard Barrans Jr., Ph.D.
Chemical Separations Group

Click here to return to the Physics Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory