Heat flux sensor


A heat flux or thermal flux is the amount of heat energy passing through a certain surface. In a clothing system a heat flux sensor can provide information on the heat exchange between the body and the environment and thus give direct input to improve the thermal comfort of the garment. Gidik et al. (2015) developed a textile-based heat flow sensor by weaving a thermoelectric (TE) wire into a textile substrate, as shown in The TE wire is comprised of two metals, constantan and copper, which form a thermocouple at their junction. These junctions are formed on both sides of the fabric, and based on the See beck effect, a voltage will be measured when both sides of the fabric have different temperatures or there is a heat flux.

Working Principle

A heat flux sensor should measure the local heat flux density in one direction. The result is expressed in watts per square meter.

As shown before in the figure to the left, heat flux sensors generally have the shape of a flat plate and a sensitivity in the direction perpendicular to the sensor surface.

Usually a number of thermocouples connected in series called thermopiles are used. General advantages of thermopiles are their stability, low ohmic value (which implies little pickup of electromagnetic disturbances), good signal-noise ratio and the fact that zero input gives zero output. Disadvantageous is the low sensitivity.

For better understanding of heat flux sensor behavior, it can be modeled as a simple electrical circuit consisting of a resistance, {\displaystyle R}and a capacitor, in this way it can be seen that one can attribute a thermal resistance{\displaystyle R_{\mathrm {sen} }}, a thermal capacity {\displaystyle C_{\mathrm {sen} }} and also a response time {\displaystyle \tau _{\mathrm {sen} }} to the sensor.

Usually, the thermal resistance and the thermal capacity of the entire heat flux sensor are equal to those of the filling material. Stretching the analogy with the electric circuit further, one arrives at the following expression for the response time.




Measurement range         (-10 to +10) x 10³ W/m²


Sensitivity (nominal)         5.5 x 10⁻⁶ V/(W/m²)


Temperature sensor          type T thermocouple


Thermal spreaders              incorporated


Rated bending radius          ≥ 50 x 10⁻³ m (repeated bending not recommended)


Rated load on a single wire    ≤ 1.6 kg


Sensing area                            9 x 10⁻⁴ m²


Sensor thermal resistance      30 x 10⁻⁴ K/(W/m²)


Sensor resistance range           50 to 100 Ω


Sensor thickness                        0.9 x 10⁻³ m


Uncertainty of calibration        ± 5 % (k = 2)


Operating temperature range      -40 to +150 °C


IP protection class                              IP67


Standard wire length                          2 m



Heat flux sensors are used for a variety of applications. Common applications are studies of building envelope thermal resistance, studies of the effect of fire and flames or laser power measurements. More exotic applications include estimation of fouling on boiler surfaces, temperature measurement of moving foil material, etc.

The total heat flux is composed of a conductive, convective and radiative part. Depending on the application, one might want to measure all three of these quantities or single one out.

An example of measurement of conductive heat flux is a heat flux plate incorporated into a wall.

An example of measurement of radiative heat flux density is a pyranometer for measurement of solar radiation.

An example of a sensor sensitive to radiative as well as convective heat flux is a Gardon or Schmidt–Boelter gauge, used for studies of fire and flames. The Gardon must measure convection perpendicular to the face of the sensor to be accurate due to the circular-foil construction, while the wire-wound geometry of the Schmidt-Boelter gauge can measure both perpendicular and parallel flows. In this case the sensor is mounted on a water-cooled body. Such sensors are used in fire resistance testing to put the fire to which samples are exposed to the right intensity level.

There are various examples of sensors that internally use heat flux sensors examples are laser power meters, pyranometers, etc.

We will discuss three large fields of application in what follows.


Applications in meteorology and agriculture

Soil heat flux is a most important parameter in agro-meteorological studies, since it allows one to study the amount of energy stored in the soil as a function of time.

Typically two or three sensors are buried in the ground around a meteorological station at a depth of around 4 cm below the surface. The problems that are encountered in soil are threefold:

First is the fact that the thermal properties of the soil are constantly changing by absorption and subsequent evaporation of water.

Second, the flow of water through the soil also represents a flow of energy, going together with a thermal shock, which often is misinterpreted by conventional sensors.

The third aspect of soil is that by the constant process of wetting and drying and by the animals living on the soil, the quality of the contact between sensor and soil is not known.

The result of all this is the quality of the data in soil heat flux measurement is not under control; the measurement of soil heat flux is considered to be extremely difficult.


Applications in building physics

In a world ever more concerned with saving energy, studying the thermal properties of buildings has become a growing field of interest. One of the starting points in these studies is the mounting of heat flux sensors on walls in existing buildings or structures built especially for this type of research. Heat flux sensors mounted to building walls or envelope component can monitor the amount of heat energy loss/gain through that component and/or can be used to measure the envelope thermal resistance, R-value, or thermal transmittance, U-value.

The measurement of heat flux in walls is comparable to that in soil in many respects. Two major differences however are the fact that the thermal properties of a wall generally do not change (provided its moisture content does not change) and that it is not always possible to insert the heat flux sensor in the wall, so that it has to be mounted on its inner or outer surface. When the heat flux sensor has to be mounted on the surface of the wall, one has to take care that the added thermal resistance is not too large. Also the spectral properties should be matching those of the wall as closely as possible. If the sensor is exposed to solar radiation, this is especially important. In this case one should consider painting the sensor in the same color as the wall. Also in walls the use of self-calibrating heat flux sensors should be considered.


Applications in medical studies

The measurement of the heat exchange of human beings is of importance for medical studies, and when designing clothing, immersion suits and sleeping bags.

A difficulty during this measurement is that the human skin is not particularly suitable for the mounting of heat flux sensors. Also the sensor has to be thin: the skin essentially is a constant temperature heat sink, so added thermal resistance has to be avoided. Another problem is that test persons might be moving. The contact between the test person and the sensor can be lost. For this reason, whenever a high level of quality assurance of the measurement is required, it can be recommended to use a self-calibrating sensor.


Applications in industry


Typical heat flux sensor for studies of radiative- as well as convective heat flux. Photo shows model RC01 with a gold-coated and a black coated heat flux sensor on a metal heat sink. The gold sensor only measures convective heat flux, the black sensor measures radiative as well as convective heat flux. A small air temperature sensor is added to estimate local heat transfer coefficients

Heat flux sensors are also used in industrial environments, where temperature and heat flux may be much higher. Examples of these environments are aluminum smelting, solar concentrators, coal fired boilers, blast furnaces, flare systems, fluidized beds, cokers.