Science Questions

What loses heat fastest, a white or black surface?

Sat, 3rd Sep 2011

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Michael Karpman asked:

A black object will absorb thermal radiation more readily than a white object. So does a black object emit thermal radiation more readily than a white object?


Dave -   To really understand what's going on here, you want to understand how light is emitted and absorbed.  Essentially, when light is absorbed, blackboarda photon of light comes in and hits an electron, giving it some energy. 

Now whether itís absorbed or not will depend on the structure of the electrons [in the atom].  If there's somewhere for the electron to go, and if it can increase it's energy level, then it will absorb the light. If not, then the light can't be absorbed and carries straight on. If it is absorbed, the substance looks black. If it isn't, itís white [because the light is reflected back].

This means that, if you heat something up, if there's [a higher energy level] somewhere for the electrons to go up to, and itís black, then there's also somewhere for the electron to drop down to again, meaning that the substance will also emit energy. 

So if something is good at absorbing light then itís also good at emitting it.  So a black thing should be much better emitting light than a white thing.

Chris -   So if you have solar panels on your roof, for example, that are heating water, you don't want the water going through them when itís colder outside than the water is because you're turning them into very effective giant radiators.

Dave -   That's right. And if you want to cool down a spaceship, the only way of doing it is by radiation of infrared light, so you paint the outside of your spaceship or the bits of the radiators in really dark black, which is so much better at emitting the light a much better radiator.

Chris -   Alright; slight twist to the story Ė if you're a cricketer and your at Lords, assuming it is sunny on the occasion you're over there - not that weíve been having much sun lately Ė they wear white, ostensibly to reflect the heat back off. So would they be better off wearing black then, assuming they're going to get hot anyway, so they can radiate the light and the heat better with the black surface?

Dave -   They're very, very unlikely to be hot enough to be radiating more heat than the sun is putting down on them because the sun has got a kilowatt per square metre and you're going to have to be very, very warm before you're emitting that much heat.  So, I think youíre still better off being in white.


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Question: I hung a Halloween decoration into our window. It's a mostly black felt cloth with some cut-outs areas with orange see-through cloth covering those from the back making it look like a face in the window. It's a South window and gets a lot of sunshine (and heat) all day. I thought, since the cloth is black, the cloth would absorb the heat and get hot, rather than the window itself. But to my surprise, the cloth was rather moderate in temperature, while the glass of the window was burning hot. Does that mean that the cloth was emitting the heat to the glass after it absorbed it? Or does it mean that the cloth behind the window gave the glass material (now appearing black) in front of it the same properties as a black material and the glass absorbed it directly for that reason? Mar, Mon, 19th Oct 2015

Thank you so much this explained to me really well how an object's rate of absorption and emission in relation to its colour are related , Tue, 16th Feb 2016

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