- Project plans
- Project activities
- Legislation and standards
- Industry context
Last edited 16 Jul 2018
Thermal optical properties
The thermal optical properties of a material describe its characteristic radiant behaviour within the thermal spectrum.
All bodies which are hotter than 0°K emit thermal radiation. They also absorb thermal radiation emitted by their surroundings. The difference in the total amount of radiation emitted and absorbed by a body at any given moment may result in a net heat transfer which will produce a change in the temperature of that body.
Thermal optical properties are treated as a function of three basic parameters; transmittance, reflectance, and absorptance, describing the ratio of the transmitted, radiated or absorbed radiant flux to the incident radiant flux. According to the Kirchoff relationship, within any specified waveband of the electromagnetic spectrum the sum of the absorptance, transmittance and reflectance of a material will equal one.
- Direct beam, which includes all collimated radiation, that is, 'rays' of radiation that are parallel.
- Diffuse, describing radiation propagated in many directions, i.e. it is not direct.
- Hemispherical, referring to the total hemispherical flux about the normal to a surface, i.e. the sum of diffuse and direct beam radiation.
As the directional nature of radiation incident upon a material changes, so the relative proportion which is absorbed, transmitted or reflected may vary significantly. This means that in order to properly quantify the optical properties of a material it is necessary to measure its transmittance, reflectance and absorptance as a function of angle of incidence.
Thermal radiation includes all those wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum which will heat a body when absorbed by it, ranging from about 100 nm to 100,000 nm. In general, the higher the temperature of a body, the lower the average wavelength of the radiation it emits. The range of terrestrial temperatures experienced within the built environment is comparatively small, and relative to the temperature of the sun this range is 'cold' and hence radiating at a longer wavelength. This anomaly allows us to categorise thermal radiation as short-wave solar radiation and terrestrial or long wave infra-red radiation.
The figure below shows the spectral distribution of this categorisation..
 Solar optical properties
Solar radiation may be considered to include the ultra violet, visible and near or short wave infra-red wavebands. Around 97% of the solar radiation incident upon the earth's surface is within the range 300 to 2,300 nm. Its spectral profile is roughly analogous to that of a black body at 5,762°K, and as terrestrial temperatures are unlikely to reach anything like this temperature, solar radiation reaching the earth may be treated as a pure thermal gain.
The continually changing position of the earth relative to the sun, and the diffusing nature of the atmosphere gives solar radiation incident upon the earth's surface a complex directional composition. For simplicity however, this is usually considered to consist of entirely diffuse, and entirely direct beam components. If the direct beam solar optical properties of a material are known for all angles of incidence, then its diffuse properties may be calculated by integration.
 Long wave infra-red optical properties
Most 'terrestrial' radiation occurs within the far or long wave infra-red wavebands. The wavelength of terrestrial radiation varies with temperature, however at room temperature approximately 97% of the radiation emanating from a perfect emitter will be within the range 3,000 nm to 50,000 nm.
Terrestrial surfaces emit long wave infra-red radiation in all directions within a hemisphere about their azimuth. This hemisphere can include a wide variety of thermal bodies, ranging from the clear night sky to relatively 'hot' solid bodies all of which will be emitting different intensities and wavelengths of thermal radiation themselves. In order to simplify this complex situation terrestrial radiation is generally treated as an average heat transfer based on hemispherical emissivities and average hemispherical surface temperatures.
 Find out more
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Computational fluid dynamics (CFD).
- Heat transfer.
- Light reflectance value.
- Low-e glass.
- Preventing overheating.
- Shading coefficient.
- Solar gain.
- Solar heat gain coefficient.
- Solar transmittance (gtot).
- The effects of electromagnetic fields in the workplace.
- Thermal bridge.
- Thermography for traditional buildings.
- U value.
- Visible light.
Featured articles and news
More than just aesthetic and historic values and meanings.
An exciting and novel collaboration between the RIBA and the SPAB.
Republic of Ireland updates to planning and development.
The different types of pile foundation.
Achieving a net-zero carbon UK by 2050.
Responding to an invitation to tender.
Statutory instruments laid in Parliament to amend the Climate Change Act.
How will we pay for infrastructure post-Brexit after EIB has gone?
What can we look forward to in the next few decades?
How they work and why they have been so successful.
Weather louvres can combat the effects of climate change.