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Thermal conduction is the transfer of internal energy by microscopic diffusion and collisions of particles or quasi-particles within a body. The microscopically diffusing and colliding objects include molecules, atoms, and electrons. They transfer disorganized microscopic kinetic and potential energy, which are jointly known as internal energy. Conduction can only take place within an object or material, or between two objects that are in contact with each other. Conduction takes place in all phases of ponderable matter, such as solids, liquids, gases and plasmas, but it is distinctly recognizable only when the matter is undergoing neither chemical reaction nor differential local internal flows of distinct chemical constituents. In the presence of such chemically defined contributory sub-processes, only the flow of internal energy is recognizable, as distinct from thermal conduction. When the processes of conduction yield a net flow of energy across a boundary because of a temperature gradient, the process is characterized as a flow of heat.

Heat spontaneously flows from a hotter to a colder body. In the absence of external drivers, temperature differences decay over time, and the bodies approach thermal equilibrium.

In conduction, the heat flow is within and through the body itself. In contrast, in heat transfer by thermal radiation, the transfer is often between bodies, which may be separated spatially. Also possible is transfer of heat by a combination of conduction and thermal radiation. In convection, internal energy is carried between bodies by a material carrier. In solids, conduction is mediated by the combination of vibrations and collisions of molecules, of propagation and collisions of phonons, and of diffusion and collisions of free electrons. In gases and liquids, conduction is due to the collisions and diffusion of molecules during their random motion. Photons in this context do not collide with one another, and so heat transport by electromagnetic radiation is conceptually distinct from heat conduction by microscopic diffusion and collisions of material particles and phonons. In condensed matter, such as a solid or liquid, the distinction between conduction and radiative transfer of heat is clear in physical concept, but it is often not phenomenologically clear, unless the material is semi-transparent.

In the engineering sciences, heat transfer includes the processes of thermal radiation, convection, and sometimes mass transfer. Usually more than one of these processes occurs in a given situation. The conventional symbol for the material property, thermal conductivity, is k.

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