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What are 5 things that produce heat?

Heat is a form of energy that flows from a hotter object to a colder object. Many different sources can produce heat energy through various processes. In this article, we will discuss 5 common things that generate heat: the sun, fire, electricity, friction, and nuclear/chemical reactions.

The Sun

The sun is by far the largest source of heat on Earth. The sun’s core reaches temperatures of over 15 million degrees Celsius. Through nuclear fusion reactions, the sun converts hydrogen into helium, releasing enormous amounts of energy in the process. This energy is emitted into space in the form of electromagnetic radiation, including visible light, ultraviolet light, and infrared radiation. About half of the solar radiation that reaches Earth is in the infrared part of the spectrum and is experienced as heat when it is absorbed by the land, oceans, and atmosphere.

Some quick facts about the heat produced by the sun:

  • The sun produces 3.8 x 10^26 Watts (3.8 x 10^23 Kilowatts) of power each second through nuclear fusion.
  • Each square meter of the Earth’s surface receives about 1000 Watts of power on average from sunlight.
  • In one hour, enough solar energy reaches the Earth’s surface to power the planet for an entire year.
  • The greenhouse effect traps some of the sun’s infrared radiation, raising the Earth’s average surface temperature from -18°C to a comfortable 15°C.

Without the steady stream of heat emanating from the sun, life as we know it could not exist on Earth. The sun’s heat drives weather patterns, ocean currents, photosynthesis, and many other essential processes.


Fire produces heat through the chemical reaction of combustion. In combustion, a fuel source reacts with oxygen gas, converting chemical energy into heat and light energy. The fuels that sustain fires can be gases (like methane or propane), liquids (like gasoline or oil), or solids (like wood, paper, or coal). As the fuel combusts with oxygen, new chemicals like carbon dioxide and water vapor are produced, releasing energy that we observe as flames and feel as heat. Some key facts about the heat from fire:

  • Wood fires release around 15-20 megajoules of energy per kilogram of wood burned.
  • An average bonfire (2.5 meters in diameter) can reach temperatures of over 1,100°C.
  • Housefires can easily reach 600-1000°C.
  • Wildfires move so quickly because the heat pre-heats the areas around them to very high temperatures.

Fire has been harnessed by humans for heating, cooking, and industrial processes for millennia. The discovery of fire was a pivotal step for human civilization. Fire remains an important source of heat energy today in applications like generating electricity, powering transportation, and heating homes.


Electricity flowing through wires and electronic devices produces heat. Electrical energy is converted into heat through the electrical resistance in conductive materials like metal wires. The flowing electrons collide with the atomic lattice of the conductor, generating thermal vibration and heat. The amount of heat generated depends on the amperage of electrical current and the resistance of the material.

Some examples of heat produced by electricity:

  • Incandescent light bulbs are designed to produce both light and heat from electric current. About 5-10% of their energy output is visible light, while the rest is infrared heat. An average 60W bulb releases about 700-900 lumens of visible light and 58W of heat.
  • Computers generate heat from the electrical resistance in microprocessors and other components. High performance GPUs and CPUs require substantial cooling systems to dissipate heat of over 100 Watts.
  • Electric stoves convert over 70% of their electrical energy into heat used for cooking. A typical electric range draws 120 to 240 volts and can produce 1 to 5 kilowatts of heat output per heating element.

Electricity has become a primary source of residential and industrial heating due to its versatility and ease of control. Heat from electricity can be generated on demand and regulated quickly and precisely.


Friction is a force that resists the relative motion between two surfaces in contact. As these surfaces rub against each other, they produce heat from the friction. On a microscopic level, friction works by deforming the points of contact between the two surfaces. As the points stick and slip against each other, mechanical energy is converted into thermal energy. The amount of heat produced depends on the force pushing the two surfaces together, the roughness of the surfaces, and the speed of relative motion.

Some examples of heat from friction:

  • Rubbing hands together vigorously can increase skin temperature by over 5°C through friction.
  • Drag racing car tires can experience friction temperatures over 300°C at high speeds.
  • Friction from atmospheric entry can heat spacecraft up to 1600°C without ablation shielding.
  • Machining and grinding metal produces a great deal of heat from friction. Coolant liquids are often applied to prevent overheating.

Friction is generally an undesirable source of heat in mechanical systems since it dissipates useful energy and causes wear and tear. Lubricants are commonly used to minimize friction and its associated heat generation in motors and machines.

Nuclear and Chemical Reactions

Nuclear and chemical reactions convert mass into energy, releasing large amounts of heat in the process. Nuclear reactions like fission, fusion, and radioactive decay break down atomic nuclei to liberate energy. Chemical reactions rearrange atoms but also release or absorb heat. The amount of heat depends on the total energy change during the reaction.

Examples of heat from nuclear/chemical reactions:

  • Typical nuclear power plants generate heat through nuclear fission at temperatures of 300-600°C.
  • The uncontrolled fission reaction in the Chernobyl disaster reached temperatures as high as 1,600°C.
  • Thermite reactions with iron oxide and aluminum can reach over 2,500°C.
  • The metabolic reactions in the human body produce around 100 Watts of heat, enough to raise body temperature to 37°C.

Nuclear technology harnesses high energy nuclear reactions to produce electricity and power ships. Chemical reactions power living organisms and drive industrial processes. Overall, nuclear and chemical reactions unlock massive stores of potential energy that manifests as heat when the reactions occur.

Comparison of Heat Generation

The table below summarizes and compares some key figures about heat generation from these 5 sources:

Heat Source Typical Temperature Range Typical Heat Flux Density
Sun 5,778 K surface temperature 1000 W/m^2 solar flux at Earth’s surface
Fire 600 – 1,600°C 15 – 20 MJ/kg for wood fires
Electricity Up to several hundred °C Around 3.4 BTU/hr/Watt = 1 W/cm^2
Friction Up to several hundred °C Around 3000 W for rubbing hands
Nuclear reactions 300 – 6000°C 80 W/cm^3 in nuclear fuel rods

This table illustrates the wide range of temperatures and heat fluxes that can be achieved by these heat sources under different conditions. Each one leverages unique chemical, physical, or nuclear processes to produce usable thermal energy.


Heat is a ubiquitous byproduct of energy flowing through systems and driving change. The sun, fire, electricity, friction, and nuclear/chemical reactions exemplify processes that convert energy into heat. By harnessing these heat sources, human civilization has progressed over millennia through innovations like steam engines, internal combustion, nuclear reactors, and more. Looking forward, managing heat and utilizing high temperature heat sources will continue to be a pressing challenge for technology and society.