Conduction vs Convection vs Radiation: The Similarities and Differences

Last Update: May 24th, 2024

Reviewed & Fact Checked by Lori Stutts

Among the most misconceived concepts in science are the processes known as conduction, convection, and radiation. These scientific principles exist in the things human beings do on a daily basis like cooking food, staying near fireplaces, and even the simple act of enjoying the light of the sun.

Matter is present everywhere, existing in three different phases: solid, liquid, and gas. In the right circumstances, matter changes form, converting from one phase to another. This conversion takes place through the exchange and interaction of heat between matter and the surrounding environment.

Simply put, heat is the transition of energy from one system into another because of the variance in temperature that occurs in three ways: conduction, convection, and radiation.

Often confused with one another, the similarity between these three forms of heat transfer and there as they are quite different from each other. In many diverse ways based on a variety of physical interactions to transfer energy, convection, conduction, and radiation differ in nearly all aspects.

In a nutshell, the difference is simple. According to the field of study that particularly researches these three modes of heat transfer called thermodynamics, the study of heat movement and the changes it causes and results into, conduction is the transfer of heat from a hotter source or part into colder matter. Convection is the heat transfer caused by the up and down motion of fluids. Radiation, on the other hand, occurs when heat passes through empty spaces.

Quite admittedly, still, there is much to be said about these scientific processes. To understand its similarities and differences further, some more things have to be unraveled to acquire a deeper understanding of the scientific phenomena.


Conduction is the process behind the capability of heat to be directly transferred through matter due to temperature elevation, moving in adjacent parts of objects in contact. When you boil a kettle of water and your fingers remain on the iron, you will ultimately feel the steel getting hotter and hotter as time wears on. This happens because as the temperature rises, the molecules present in a substance gain energy, causing a vigorous vibration of the molecules, causing a vigorous vibration. These vibrations result in collisions between molecules, spreading further and transporting thermal energy to nearby parts of the object.

In simpler terms, when two objects come in direct contact with each other, a transfer of heat is facilitated from the object at a higher temperature to the colder one. This is due to conduction. In many cases, matter also possesses properties that allow heat to travel much easier compared to other substances. These materials are called conductors.


Convection, on the other hand, is the process by which heat is transferred through the movement of fluid matter, such as air or water. Fluid, in science, pertains to the characteristic of matter that allows it to move freely from one place to another. Convection can happen naturally or forcefully.

Gravity plays a great role in convection – especially so for the natural variant – as when a substance is heated from its base, it results in the expansion of the warmers parts. Buoyancy, another property of matter, allows the hotter substance to rise because of its lesser density. The colder substance replaces sinks to the bottom due to its higher density. This continuous displacement and exchange of positions between the hotter and colder parts form a cycle through the transfer of heat. During convection, as the substance heats up and raises its temperature, its molecules disperse and move apart.

This process can be manually caused through human intervention and devices. This is what science calls forced convection.


Radiation is a heat transfer system that has no need for mediums. Radiation moves in waves and does not require molecules to be able to travel from one substance to another substance. Objects don’t need to be touching the source of the heat to be affected by radiation. Even when there is no direct contact, heat can still be transferred through radiation.

Whenever you feel heat without actually touching an object, it is because of radiation. In this mode of heat transfer, the energy moved through electromagnetic waves is called radiant energy. Hot objects, in general, emanate thermal energy. It affects the surrounding environment with a lower temperature.

The best way to understand radiation is by envisioning how the sun works. The solar energy that shines down on the earth is radiation. Even when the source is millions of miles away from this planet, its heat still significantly affects the vegetarian, animal habitats, and human life as we know it.

Noteworthy Differences

Conduction is the process that allows the transportation of heat between parts of the continuum with the aid of direct physical contact between solid matter. Convection and radiation, on the other hand, do not require contact between solids and instead make use of fluid matter and electromagnetic waves respectively to transfer heat.

Conduction demonstrates how heat travels between objects in direct contact. Convectionis the counterpart that reflects how heat travels through fluid matter such as liquids and gasses. In comparison, radiation is the transfer of heat through places that have no molecules.

In the premise of other properties of matter, conduction occurs as the effect of the difference of temperatures between materials. Convection happens due to the differences in density. This causes heat to move from low-density regions to high-density regions. Radiation, on the other hand, happens in all objects that release heat as long it has a temperature of over 0 K.

Conduction often occurs in solids as a result of a molecular collision. Convection takes place in fluids through the mass movement of molecules in a certain direction. Radiation occurs through the vacuum of space and has no need for heating any intervening mediums.

In many cases and generally, the speed of heat transfer in conduction and convection is slower than in radiation. It is also a notable difference that conduction and convection do not adhere to the laws of reflection and refraction while radiation sticks to them.

Elena Jones

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