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Thermocouple Applications and Experiments

written by: Dr. Crystal Cooper • edited by: Lamar Stonecypher • updated: 2/28/2009

How does using a blowtorch or candle help demonstrate the Seebeck effect? And how can you create a homemade thermocouple? This is the conclusion of the series on an introduction to thermocouples.

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    Thermocouple Applications

    Thermocouples are used in auto racing vehicles and in air craft to help with diagnostics for engine performance; they are also used as an aid in milk pasteurization. Your gas appliances such as boilers, water heaters, and ovens use thermocouples as safety features; if a pilot light is out, the thermocouple will prevent the gas valve from functioning. Not all gas appliances have this property, however.

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    Homemade Experiments

    You can construct your own thermocouple, by following the instructions at All About Circuits or at TeamDroid. Original Seebeck Experiment   All you need is metal such as a steel wire or nail attached to a copper wire. Connect the wire ends separately to a bread board, and use a multimeter to measure the voltage created by the temperature differences. Make sure that the multimeter is on low settings, such as milli-volts, and make sure that the wire is bare, and not coated. A bare wire will heat or cool better when placed in water and you won't have to worry about melting the insulation if you use a candle. Instead of a candle, you may use steam, boiling water, or even your own fingers. The finger trick works best with wires thin enough to absorb your heat.

    As always, exercise caution when handling electrical circuits and devices above room temperature, lest you burn yourself or damage your equipment.

    If you are feeling especially nerdy, keep track of the different metal and heat combinations on a spreadsheet and use the values to create and combine graphs. For example, one plot would be a steel-copper combination where the axes are voltage versus temperature. You would record and plot the voltages when your device is heated by steaming hot water at 100oC, your fingers at approximately 37oC, ice water at 0oC, water at room temperature (20-25oC), and the like. Instead of using these estimates, record the temperatures using a thermometer for more accuracy. Do the same for steel-iron or another metal combination, and overlay all your graphs on the same plot for comparison.

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    Further Explorations

    For the highly anticipated blowtorch demo and innovations on water heaters and car engines that will limit or dispense with the use of gas, check out the resources section below.

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    Physics For Scientists and Engineers by Raymond Serway

    Notes on Using Thermocouples by Dr. Robert J. Moffat

    Image Credits

    Original Seebeck experiment from

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Introduction to Thermocouples

An introduction to thermocouples, with explanations on their construction and applications, and how you can make make one yourself.
  1. What is a Thermocouple?
  2. Thermocouple Applications and Experiments