Expansion and Contraction : Why does heat and cold make things expand and contract ? Also why do some metals expand more than others?
Asked by: Marcus Mckean
Recall that all materials are made up of atoms. At any temperature above absolute zero (-273 degrees
celsius) the atoms will be moving. In a solid they will be vibrating in fixed positions, in
a liquid thy will be jostling past each other and in a gas they will be whizzing past each
other at very high speeds. When a material is heated, the kinetic energy of that material increases and
its atoms and molecules move about more. This means that each atom will take up more space due to its movement so
the material will expand. When it is cold the kinetic energy decreases, so the atoms take up less space
and the material contracts.
Some metals expand more than others due to differences in the forces between the atoms / molecules. In metals
such as iron the forces between the atoms are stronger so it is more difficult for the atoms to move
around . In brass the forces are a little weaker so the atoms are free to move about more. These
differences in contraction are used in a bimetallic strip, which is composed of a strip of brass
laid along side strip of Iron. When the strip is heated the brass expands more than the iron so the
strip beds. It is used in devics such as fire alarms and circuit breakers to either make or break
contacts in an electric circuit.
The differences in expansion and contraction are even more visible in different states, again due to
the amount of force holding the atoms together. A gas will expand the most as its atoms are free
from each other so are free to increase in speed the most.
Answered by: Sara Al-Assam, Student, Tiffin Girls' School, Kingston
'Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little; it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover.'