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Joule heating-Wikipedia

Joule heating

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Process by which the passage of an electric current through a conductor produces heat

A coiled

heating element

from an electric toaster, showing red to yellow


Joule heating, also known as resistive, resistance, or Ohmic heating, is the process by which the passage of an

electric current

through a





Joule’s first law, also known as the Joule–Lenz law,


states that the


of heating generated by an

electrical conductor

is proportional to the product of its


and the square of the current:

P∝I2R{displaystyle Ppropto I^{2}R}

Joule heating affects the whole electric conductor, unlike the

Peltier effect

which transfers heat from one electrical junction to another.




James Prescott Joule

first published in December 1840, an abstract in the

Proceedings of the Royal Society

, suggesting that heat could be generated by an electrical current. Joule immersed a length of wire in a fixed




and measured the


rise due to a known current flowing through the wire for a 30


period. By varying the current and the length of the wire he deduced that the heat produced was


to the


of the current multiplied by the

electrical resistance

of the immersed wire.


In 1841 and 1842, subsequent experiments showed that the amount of heat generated was proportional to the

chemical energy

used in the

voltaic pile

that generated the template. This led Joule to reject the

caloric theory

(at that time the dominant theory) in favor of the

mechanical theory of heat

(according to which heat is another form of




Resistive heating was independently studied by

Heinrich Lenz

in 1842.



SI unit



was subsequently named the


and given the symbol J. The commonly known unit of power, the


, is equivalent to one joule per second.

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Microscopic description[



Joule heating is caused by interactions between

charge carriers



) and the body of the conductor (usually






difference between two points of a conductor creates an

electric field

that accelerates charge carriers in the direction of the electric field, giving them

kinetic energy

. When the charged particles collide with ions in the conductor, the particles are


; their direction of motion becomes random rather than aligned with the electric field, which constitutes

thermal motion

. Thus, energy from the electrical field is converted into

thermal energy



Power loss and noise[



Joule heating is referred to as ohmic heating or resistive heating because of its relationship to

Ohm’s Law

. It forms the basis for the large number of practical applications involving

electric heating

. However, in applications where heating is an unwanted


of current use (e.g.,

load losses


electrical transformers

) the diversion of energy is often referred to as resistive loss. The use of

high voltages


electric power transmission

systems is specifically designed to reduce such losses in cabling by operating with commensurately lower currents. The

ring circuits

, or ring mains, used in UK homes are another example, where power is delivered to outlets at lower currents (per wire, by using two paths in parallel), thus reducing Joule heating in the wires. Joule heating does not occur in


materials, as these materials have zero electrical resistance in the superconducting state.

Resistors create electrical noise, called

Johnson–Nyquist noise

. There is an intimate relationship between Johnson–Nyquist noise and Joule heating, explained by the

fluctuation-dissipation theorem





Direct current[



The most fundamental formula for Joule heating is the generalized power equation:

P=I(VA−VB){displaystyle P=I(V_{A}-V_{B})}


  • P{displaystyle P} is the


    (energy per unit time) converted from electrical energy to thermal energy,

  • I{displaystyle I} is the current travelling through the resistor or other element,
  • VA−VB{displaystyle V_{A}-V_{B}} is the

    voltage drop

    across the element.

The explanation of this formula (P=IV{displaystyle P=IV}) is:


(Energy dissipated per unit time) = (Charge passing through resistor per unit time) × (Energy dissipated per charge passing through resistor)

Assuming the element behaves as a perfect resistor and that the power is completely converted into heat, the formula can be re-written by substituting

Ohm’s law

, V=I⋅R{displaystyle V=Icdot R}, into the generalized power equation:

P=IV=I2R=V2/R{displaystyle P=IV=I^{2}R=V^{2}/R}

where R is the



Alternating current[



When current varies, as it does in AC circuits,

P(t)=U(t)I(t){displaystyle P(t)=U(t)I(t)}

where t is time and P is the instantaneous power being converted from electrical energy to heat. Far more often, the average power is of more interest than the instantaneous power:

Pavg=UrmsIrms=Irms2R=Urms2/R{displaystyle P_{rm {avg}}=U_{text{rms}}I_{text{rms}}=I_{text{rms}}^{2}R=U_{text{rms}}^{2}/R}

where “avg” denotes

average (mean)

over one or more cycles, and “rms” denotes

root mean square


These formulas are valid for an ideal resistor, with zero


. If the reactance is nonzero, the formulas are modified:

Pavg=UrmsIrmscos⁡ϕ=Irms2Re⁡(Z)=Urms2Re⁡(Y∗){displaystyle P_{rm {avg}}=U_{text{rms}}I_{text{rms}}cos phi =I_{text{rms}}^{2}operatorname {Re} (Z)=U_{text{rms}}^{2}operatorname {Re} (Y^{*})}

where ϕ{displaystyle phi } is phase difference between current and voltage, Re{displaystyle operatorname {Re} } means

real part

, Z is the

complex impedance

, and Y* is the

complex conjugate

of the


(equal to 1/Z*).

For more details in the reactive case, see

AC power


Differential form[



Joule heating can also be calculated at a particular location in space. The differential form of the Joule heating equation gives the power per unit volume.

dP/dV=J⋅E{displaystyle mathrm {d} P/mathrm {d} V=mathbf {J} cdot mathbf {E} }

Here, J{displaystyle mathbf {J} } is the current density, and E{displaystyle mathbf {E} } is the electric field. For a material with a conductivity σ{displaystyle sigma }, J=σE{displaystyle mathbf {J} =sigma mathbf {E} } and therefore

dP/dV=J⋅E=J⋅=J2/σ{displaystyle mathrm {d} P/mathrm {d} V=mathbf {J} cdot mathbf {E} =mathbf {J} cdot mathbf {J} rho =J^{2}/sigma }

where ρ=1/σ{displaystyle rho =1/sigma } is the


. This directly resembles the “I2R{displaystyle I^{2}R}” term of the macroscopic form.

In the harmonic case, where all field quantities vary with the angular frequency ω{displaystyle omega } as e−t{displaystyle e^{-mathrm {i} omega t}}, complex valued


J^{displaystyle {hat {mathbf {J} }}} and E^{displaystyle {hat {mathbf {E} }}} are usually introduced for the current density and the electric field intensity, respectively. The Joule heating then reads

dP/dV=12J^E^=12J^J^ρ=12J2/σ{displaystyle mathrm {d} P/mathrm {d} V={frac {1}{2}}{hat {mathbf {J} }}cdot {hat {mathbf {E} }}^{*}={frac {1}{2}}{hat {mathbf {J} }}cdot {hat {mathbf {J} }}^{*}rho ={frac {1}{2}}J^{2}/sigma },

where {displaystyle bullet ^{*}} denotes the

complex conjugate


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High-voltage alternating current transmission of electricity[



Overhead power lines

transfer electrical energy from electricity producers to consumers. Those power lines have a nonzero resistance and therefore are subject to Joule heating, which causes transmission losses.

The split of power between transmission losses (Joule heating in transmission lines) and load (useful energy delivered to the consumer) can be approximated by a

voltage divider

. In order to minimize transmission losses, the resistance of the lines has to be as small as possible compared to the load (resistance of consumer appliances). Line resistance is minimized by the use of

copper conductors

, but the resistance and

power supply

specifications of consumer appliances are fixed.

Usually, a


is placed between the lines and consumption. When a high-voltage, low-intensity current in the primary circuit (before the transformer) is converted into a low-voltage, high-intensity current in the secondary circuit (after the transformer), the equivalent resistance of the secondary circuit becomes higher


and transmission losses are reduced in proportion.

During the

war of currents



installations could use transformers to reduce line losses by Joule heating, at the cost of higher voltage in the transmission lines, compared to






Joule-heating or resistive-heating is used in multiple devices and industrial process. The part which converts electricity into heat by Joule heating is called a

heating element


There are many practical uses of Joule heating:

  • An

    incandescent light bulb

    glows when the filament is heated by Joule heating, due to

    thermal radiation

    (also called

    blackbody radiation


  • Electric fuses

    are used as a safety, breaking the circuit by melting if enough current flows to melt them.

  • Electronic cigarettes

    vaporize propylene glycol and vegetable glycerine by Joule heating.

  • Multiple heating devices use Joule heating, such as

    electric stoves


    electric heaters


    soldering irons


    cartridge heaters


  • Some

    food processing

    equipment may make use of Joule heating: running current through food material (which behave as an electrical resistor) causes heat release inside the food.


    The alternating electrical current coupled with the resistance of the food causes the generation of heat.


    A higher resistance increases the heat generated. Ohmic heating allows for fast and uniform heating of food products, which keeps the high quality in foods. Products with particulates heat up faster in Ohmic heating (as compared to conventional heat processing) due to higher resistance.


Food processing[



Joule heating (

Ohmic heating

) is a

flash pasteurization

(also called “high-temperature short-time” (HTST)) aseptic process that runs an alternating current of 50–60 Hz through food.


Heat is generated through the electrical resistance of the food.


As the product heats up, electrical conductivity increases linearly.


A higher electrical current frequency is best as it reduces oxidation and metallic contamination.


This heating method is best for foods that contain particulates suspended in a weak salt-containing medium due to their high resistance properties.


Ohmic heating allows for a maintained quality of foods due to the uniform heating that decreases deterioration and over-processing of food.


Heating efficiency[



As a heating technology, Joule heating has a

coefficient of performance

of 1.0, meaning that every joule of electrical energy supplied produces one joule of heat. In contrast, a

heat pump

can have a coefficient of more than 1.0 since it moves additional thermal energy from the environment to the heated item.

The definition of the efficiency of a heating process requires defining the boundaries of the system to be considered. When heating a building, the overall efficiency is different when considering heating effect per unit of electric energy delivered on the customer’s side of the meter, compared to the overall efficiency when also considering the losses in the power plant and transmission of power.

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Hydraulic equivalent[



In the

energy balance of groundwater flow

a hydraulic equivalent of Joule’s law is used:


dEdx=vx2K{displaystyle {dE over dx}={v_{x}^{2} over K}}


dE/dx{displaystyle dE/dx} = loss of hydraulic energy (E{displaystyle E}) due to friction of flow in x{displaystyle x}-direction per unit of time (m/day) – comparable to P{displaystyle P}
vx{displaystyle v_{x}} = flow velocity in x{displaystyle x}-direction (m/day) – comparable to I{displaystyle I}
K{displaystyle K} =

hydraulic conductivity

of the soil (m/day) – the hydraulic conductivity is inversely proportional to the hydraulic resistance which compares to R{displaystyle R}

See also[



  • Resistance wire

  • Heating element

  • Nichrome

  • Tungsten

  • Molybdenum disilicide

  • Overheating (electricity)

  • Thermal management (electronics)

  • Induction heating




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