In the simplest of terms, the discipline of heat transfer is concerned with only two things: temperature, and the flow of heat. Temperature represents the amount of thermal energy available, whereas heat flow represents the movement of thermal energy from place to place.
On a microscopic scale, thermal energy is related to the kinetic energy of molecules. The greater a material's temperature, the greater the thermal agitation of its constituent molecules (manifested both in linear motion and vibrational modes). It is natural for regions containing greater molecular kinetic energy to pass this energy to regions with less kinetic energy.
Several material properties serve to modulate the heat tranfered between two regions at differing temperatures. Examples include thermal conductivities, specific heats, material densities, fluid velocities, fluid viscosities, surface emissivities, and more. Taken together, these properties serve to make the solution of many heat transfer problems an involved process.
Heat transfer mechanisms can be grouped into 3 broad categories:
Regions with greater molecular kinetic energy will pass their thermal energy to regions with less molecular energy through direct molecular collisions, a process known as conduction. In metals, a significant portion of the transported thermal energy is also carried by conduction-band electrons.
When heat conducts into a static fluid it leads to a local volumetric expansion. As a result of gravity-induced pressure gradients, the expanded fluid parcel becomes buoyant and displaces, thereby transporting heat by fluid motion (i.e. convection) in addition to conduction. Such heat-induced fluid motion in initially static fluids is known as free convection.
All materials radiate thermal energy in amounts determined by their temperature, where the energy is carried by photons of light in the infrared and visible portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. When temperatures are uniform, the radiative flux between objects is in equilibrium and no net thermal energy is exchanged. The balance is upset when temperatures are not uniform, and thermal energy is transported from surfaces of higher to surfaces of lower temperature.