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Does Metal Shrink When Cold? (Explained)

Metals are one of the most used materials in the world. You can’t even think about a single thing without metal.

So, we are often interested in the different properties and behavior of metals. Even metal can change its behavior upon different pressure, temperature, and environment.

We often experience the change of length of most of the metals in different environments. So, you might be confused about whether metal shrinks when cold or not.

If you want to know about the behavior of metals in cold, you have to know about the properties of metals at different temperatures.

Does metal shrink when cold?

Metal shrinks when cold. Generally, most metals have the property of contracting when in low temperatures. Even you might see the size change of the metal in the winter season. Because metals change their size by shrinking or expanding in contact with different temperatures.

However, a lot of different types of metals are available in the world. Each metal has distinct properties and behavior in different environments. So, you might be interested in whether all the metals shrink when cold or not. Let’s see the behaviors of some metals when cold.

Steel/Stainless steel:

Steel and stainless steel shrink when cold. Generally, the main material of steel is iron. Besides, stainless steel is also a modification of steel. So, steel and stainless steel also change their size in cold since iron changes in the cold.

Generally, the volume expands in high temperatures and contracts in low temperatures. That’s why ultimately steel and stainless steel shrink in cold weather.

Even you might be surprised to know that the Eiffel Tower shrinks about six inches in winter because of the shrinkage of stainless steel. 

Aluminum:

Aluminum also shows the same behavior as steel. When you keep aluminum in high temperatures, it will expand and when you keep it at low temperature, it will shrink.

Generally, this behavior is so common in the winter season. You might experience that some aluminum wires are tighter and more straightened in winter than summer.

Aluminum shows this behavior because the volume changes in cold weather. So, when the volume contracts, it shows shrinkage of the overall metal.

Brass:

Brass will also shrink when cold. Generally, the shrinkage rate of brass is even more than iron. When brass comes in contact with cold weather, it will change its volume and the volume of brass will contract. Thus the total material will shrink.

Generally, brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. Both copper and zinc expand and contract when the temperature changes. So, their mixture will also show the same behavior in contact with high and low temperatures.

Why does metal shrink when cooled?

Now, when you know that metal shrinks when cooled, you might be interested in why metals shrink in cold. Let’s see some basic reasons for it.

Decrease in kinetic energy:

We know the kinetic energy of metal is related to temperature. When temperature rises, the kinetic energy of metal increases. Contrarily, kinetic energy decreases when the temperature falls.

So, when the kinetic energy of a metal decreases, the movement of atoms also decreases. So, the metal atoms don’t need too much volume. That’s why the metal ultimately shrinks.

Decrease in the movement of molecules:

When a metal is at a low temperature, the movement of molecules in the metal decreases. They don’t need much space to occupy the metal.

So, the movement of molecules slows down at low temperatures. That’s why the molecules remain close to one another and the metal shrinks.

Volume change:

Another primary reason for the shrinkage of metal in cold is the volume change. Volume change occurs if the kinetic energy, movement of molecules, forces between atoms, etc., change.

So, when the volume changes because of temperature change, the metal will also change in size.

If the metal’s volume is decreased at low temperature, the metal will shrink at that temperature.

How much does metal shrink when cold?

How much metal shrinks when cold depends on the thermal contraction of the metal. Generally, the rate of shrinkage depends on different metals. All metals don’t shrink at the same rate.

For example, brass shrinks and expands more than iron. Besides, the shrinkage rate might be different for steel or stainless steel than iron.

Moreover, how much metal will shrink depends on the kinetic energy change, movement of the molecules, and intermetallic bonds of the metal. So, the shrinkage rate of one metal will not match with another.

For example, steel will shrink 0.0000063 inches/inch per degree Fahrenheit. This rate will not be visible in a small piece of steel. You can see the visible difference in the large elements. For example, Eiffel Tower shrinks about 6 inches in the winter from summer.

That means, metals shrink at the rate according to their thermal expansion or contraction coefficient.

Does wind chill affect metal?

Yes, wind chill can affect metals. Generally, wind chill is the loss of body heat of a material when the wind is cold. Wind chill has different effects on different metals. But sometimes, the effects are not so severe, sometimes, it might create danger.

For example, if the metal is exposed to wind chill and the metal has no quality of heating, it will eventually lose body heat. From the external effects, the effects of wind chill will enter the internal body of the metal. As a result, the layer of metals might shrink.

Sometimes, the hot water or cold water pipe bursts. The wind chill effect might be responsible for this. So, the wind chill is not that serious sometimes. But if the metal doesn’t have the ability to absorb heat in cold weather, it will become shrunk in cold.

What happens to metal when it gets cold?

You might know that metals shrink when it gets cold. But metals go through several changes when you keep them in cold. Let’s see what happens to metal when it gets cold.

Shrinkage:

The ultimate change that is visible is the shrinkage of metal. When you keep metal in cold weather, it will shrink.

Generally, the internal changes of metal during cold weather change the behavior of metal. The metal will shrink when the temperature is pretty lower than room temperature.

Volume change:

Shrinkage happens because of volume change. When the metal gets cold, the movement of atoms inside it also decreases. As a result, the kinetic energy in the metal is also decreased.

When the kinetic energy and movement of atoms in a metal decrease, the molecules will not need too much space to move in the metal.

So, the metal will remain closely packed. So, the volume will decrease when the metal gets cold.

Brittleness:

This type of change occurs when the metal is in super cold. Generally, metals have a good ductility than ceramics.

Moreover, the ductility increase in high temperatures. But when you keep the metal at a low temperature, the ductile to brittle temperature will not change drastically.

But if you change the temperature to an extremely low temperature, the metal will become brittle. This happens at a freezing temperature.

Stiffness:

Metals generally are ductile at room temperature. But when metals get cold, they will lose ductility. As a result, the metal will become stiffer in the cold temperature.

Does heat make metal expand or shrink?

Heat makes metal expand. Most metals expand when in contact with high temperatures. It’s the normal behavior of metal to expand at high temperatures.

Generally, when metal gets heat, the kinetic energy inside the metal will increase drastically. As a result, the movement of atoms and molecules will also increase at a higher rate.

So, the more the atoms will move, the more space they will need to more. The movement of atoms and molecules will increase the space of their movement. So, the volume will increase to provide space for the molecules to move.

Ultimately, the metal will expand. This behavior is so common that you might have seen it in so many places. For example, you might have seen that in summer, the electrical wires of the highway road are hanging instead of straight wires. This represents that the wire is expanded in the hot weather of summer.

So, expanding in heat is an expected nature of metals. Though some exceptions might be available, expanding nature is common in most materials.

Final Thoughts

Metals shrink or contract at low temperatures. Expanding in heat and shrinking in cold is the normal behavior of metal. Generally, the volume of a metal changes in cold weather because of the kinetic energy change of metal. So, the volume decrease in cold results in shrinkage of metals.