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Thermal conductivity depends on the rate at which thermal energy is transferred from one end of a material to another. Thermal conductors have a high rate of thermal energy transfer and thermal insulators have a slow rate of thermal energy transfer. The rate at which thermal radiation is absorbed or emitted by a system depends on its temperature, color, texture and exposed surface area. All other things being equal, in a given amount of time, black rough surfaces absorb more thermal energy than smooth white surfaces. An object or system is continually absorbing and emitting thermal radiation. If the object or system absorbs more thermal energy than it emits and there is no change in phase, the temperature increases. If the object or system emits more thermal energy than is absorbed and there is no change in phase, the temperature decreases. For an object or system in thermal equilibrium, the amount of thermal energy absorbed is equal to the amount of thermal energy emitted; therefore, the temperature remains constant. In chemistry, changes in thermal energy are quantified for substances that change their temperature.
In middle school, thermal energy is introduced as the energy of movement of the particles that make up matter. Processes of heat transfer, including conduction, convection and radiation, are studied. In other sections of this course, the role of thermal energy during heating, cooling and phase changes is explored conceptually and graphically. In this course, rates of thermal energy transfer and thermal equilibrium are introduced.