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What is a Thermocouple? How Thermocouple Works?

Written by: Haresh Khemani Edited by: Lamar Stonecypher

Updated Oct 28, 2009
Thermocouple comprises of at least two metals joint together to form two junctions. One
is connected to the body whose temperature is to be measured; this junction is called as
hot or measuring junction. Let know more about it.
What is a Thermocouple?

Thermocouple is the devise used extensively for measurement of the temperature of the
body. Temperature is the fundamental property just like the mass and time and is
frequently measured quantity. Thermocouple comprises of at least two metals joint
together to form two junctions. One is connected to the body whose temperature is to
be measured; this junction is called as hot or measuring junction. The other junction is
connected to the body of known temperature; this is called as cold or reference junction.
Thus the thermocouple enables measuring the unknown temperature of the body with
reference to the known temperature of the other body.
Principle of Working of Thermocouple

The working principle of thermocouple is based on three effects, discovered by

Seebeck, Peltier and Thomson. All these have been described in brief below.
1) Seebeck effect: The Seebeck effect states that when two different or unlike metals
are joined together at two junctions, an electromotive force (emf) is generated at the two
junctions. The amount of emf generated is different for different combinations of the
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2) Peltier effect: As per the Peltier effect when two dissimilar metals are joined together
to form two junctions, the emf is generated within the circuit due to different
temperatures of the two junctions of the circuit.
3) Thomson effect: As per Thomson effect, when two unlike metals are joined together
forming two junctions, the potential exists within the circuit due to temperature gradient
along the entire length of the conductors within the circuit.
In most of the cases the emf suggested by Thomson effect is very small and it can be
neglected by making proper selection of the metals. The Peltier effect play prominent
role in the working principle of the thermocouple.

How Thermocouple Works?

The general circuit for the working of thermocouple is shown in the figure 1 above. It
comprises to two dissimilar metals A and B. These are joined together to form two
junctions, p and q, which are maintained at the temperatures T 1 and T2 respectively.
Remember that the thermocouple cannot be formed if there are no two junctions. Since
the two junctions are maintained at different temperatures the Peltier emf is generated
within the circuit and it is the function of the temperatures of two junctions.
If the temperature of both the junctions is same, equal and opposite emf will be
generated at both junctions and the net current flowing through the junction is zero. If
the junctions are maintained at different temperature, the emfs will not become zero
and there will be net current flowing through the circuit. The total emf flowing through
this circuit depends on the metals used within the circuit as well the temperature of the
two junctions. The total emf or the current flowing through the circuit can be measured
easily by the suitable devise.

For measurement of the temperature of the body, one junction of the thermocouple is
connected to the body whose temperature is to be measured. This junction is called as
hot junction or the measuring junction. The other junction is connected to the body
whose temperature is known. This junction is called as cold or reference junction.
Within the circuit of the thermocouple the devise for measuring the current or emf
flowing the circuit is connected. It measures the amount of emf flowing through the
circuit due to the two junctions of the two dissimilar metals maintained at different
temperatures. In the figure 2 above the two junctions of the thermocouple and the
devise used for measurement of emf (potentiometer) are shown.
Now, the temperature of the reference junctions is already known, while the temperature
of measuring junction is unknown. The output obtained from the thermocouple circuit is
calibrated directly against the unknown temperature. Thus the voltage or current output
obtained from thermocouple circuit gives the value of unknown temperature directly.
Devices Used for Measuring emf within the Thermocouple Circuit

The amount of emf developed within the thermocouple circuit is very small, which is
usually in millivolts, hence some highly sensitive instruments should be used for
measuring the emf generated in the thermocouple circuit. The two devices used
commonly for measuring emf within the thermocouple circuit are ordinary galvanometer
and voltage balancing potentiometer. The manually or automatically balancing
potentiometer is used more commonly.
The figure 2 above shows potentiometer connected in the thermocouple circuit. The
junction p is connected to the body whose temperature is to be measured. The junction
q is the reference junction, whose temperature can be measured by the thermometer. In
some cases the reference junctions can also be maintained at the ice temperature by
connecting it to the ice bath (see figure 3). This devise can be calibrated in terms of the
input temperature so that its scale can give the value directly in terms of temperature.

Book: Mechanical Measurements by Thomas G. Beckwith and N. Lewis Buck


An instrument for measuring temperature, especially one having a graduated

glass tube with a bulb containing a liquid, typically mercury or colored alcohol,
that expands and rises in the tube as the temperature increases.


A thermocouple is a device made by two different wires joined at one end,
called junction endor measuring end. The two wires are called thermoelements or legs
of the thermocouple: the two thermoelements are distnguished as positive and negative
ones. The other end of the thermocouple is called tail end or reference end (Figure1).
The junction end is immersed in the enviroment whose temperature T 2 has to be
measured, which can be for instance the temperature of a furnace at about 500C, while
the tail end is held at a different temperature T1, e.g. at ambient temperature.

Figure1:Schematic drawing of a thermocouple

Because of the temperature difference between junction end and tail end a voltage
difference can be measured between the two thermoelements at the tail end: so the
thermocouple is a temperature-voltage transducer.
The temperature vs voltage relationship is given by:


where Emf is the Electro-Motive Force or Voltage produced by the thermocople at the tail
end, T1and T2 are the temperatures of reference and measuring end respectively, S 12 is
called Seebeck coefficient of the thermocouple and S 1 and S2 are the Seebeck
coefficient of the two thermoelements; the Seebeck coefficient depends on the material
the thermoelement is made of. Looking at Equation1 it can be noticed that:
1. a null voltage is measured if the two thermoelements are made of the same
materials: different materials are needed to make a temperature sensing device,

2. a null voltage is measured if no temperature difference exists between the tail end
and the junction end: a temperature difference is needed to operate the
3. the Seebeck coefficient is temperature dependent.
In order to clarify the first point let us consider the following example (Figure2): when a
temperature difference is applied between the two ends of a single Ni wire a voltage
drop is developed across the wire itself. The end of the wire at the highest temperature,
T2, is called hot end, while the end at the lowest temperature, T1, is called cold end.

Figure2: Emf produced by a single wire

When a voltmeter, with Cu connection wires, is used to measure the voltage drop across
the Ni wire, two junctions need to be made at the hot and cold ends between the Cu wire
and the Ni wire; assuming that the voltmeter is at room temperature T 1, one of the Cu
wires of the voltmeter will experience along it the same temperature drop from T2 to T1
the Ni wire is experiencing. In the attempt to measure the voltage drop on the Ni wire a
Ni-Cu thermocouple has been made and so the measured voltage is in reality the voltage
drop along the Ni wire plus the voltage drop along the Cu wire.
The Emf along a single thermoelement cannot be measured: the Emf measured at the tail
end inFigure1 is the sum of the voltage drop along each of the thermoelements. As two
thermoelements are needed, the temperature measurement with thermocuoples is
a differential measurement.
Note: if the wire in Figure2 was a Cu wire a null voltage would have been measured at
the voltmeter.
The temperature measurement with thermocouples is also a differential
measurement because two different temperatures, T1 and T2, are involved. The desired

temperature is the one at the junction end, T 2. In order to have a useful transducer for
measurement, a monotonic Emf versus junction end temperature T 2 relationship is
needed, so that for each temperature at the junction end a unique voltage is produced at
the tail end.
However, from the integral in Equation1 it can be understood that the Emf depends on
both T1and T2: as T1 and T2 can change indipendently, a monotonic Emf vs T2 relationship
cannot be defined if the tail end temperature is not constant. For this reason the tail end
is mantained in an ice bath made by crushed ice and water in a Dewar flask: this produces
a reference temperature of 0C. All the voltage versus temperature relationships for
thermocouples are referenced to 0C.
The resulting measuring system required for a thermocople is shown in Figure3.

Figure3: A measuring system for thermocouples

In order to measure the voltage at the tail end, two copper wires are connected between
the thermoelements and the voltmeter: both the Cu wires experience the same
temperature difference and as a result the voltage drops along each of them are equal to
each other and cancel out in the measurement at the voltmeter.
The ice bath is usually replaced in industrial application with an integrated circuit
called cold junction compensator: in this case the tail end is at ambient temperature
and the temperature fluctuations at the tail end are tolerated; in fact the cold junction
compensator produces a voltage equal to the thermocouple voltage between 0C and
ambient temperature, which can be added to the voltage of the thermocouple at the tail
end to reproduce the voltage versus temperature relationship of the thermocouple.

A sketch of a thermocouple with cold junction compensation is reported in Figure4.

Figure4: An example of Cold Junction Compensation

It should be underlined that the cold junction compensation cannot reproduce exactly the
voltage versus temperature relationship of the thermocouple, but can only approximate
it: for this reason the cold junction compensation introduces an error in the temperature
Figure4 shows also the filtering and amplification of the thermocouple. Being the
thermocouple voltage a DC signal, removal of AC noise through filtering is beneficial;
furthermore the thermocouples produce voltage of few tens of mV and for this reason
amplification is required. The small voltage range for some of the most common
thermocouples (letter designated thermocouples) is shown in Figure5, where their
voltage versus temperature relationship is reported.

Type R, S and B thermocouples use Pt-base thermoelements and they can operate at
temperatures up to 1700C; however they are more expensive and their voltage output is
lower than type K and type N thermocouples, which use Ni-base thermoelements.
However, Ni base thermocouples can operate at lower temperatures than the Pt-base
ones. Table1 reports the approximate compositions for positive and negative
thermoelements of the letter designated thermocouples.

Figure5: Voltage vs Temperature relationship for letter-designated thermocouples

Thermocouple type

Positive Thermoelement

Negative Thermoelement








Ni-5% other elements







Table1: Approximate composition for thermoelements of letter-designated thermocouples

All the voltage-temperature relationships of the letter designated thermocouples are

monotonic, but not linear. For instance the type N thermocouple voltage output is
defined by the following 10 degree polynomials, where t is the temperature in degree


The coefficients Ci are reported in Table2.

In order to have a linear voltage-temperature relationship the Seebeck coefficient should
be constant with temperature (see Equation1); however the Seebeck coefficient is
temperature dependent, as shown for instance for type K thermocouple in Figure6.
Additional details on the voltage-temperature relatinships for letter designated
thermocouple can be found at:

Temperature range: (-270C,0C)

Temperature range: (0C,1300C)


0.000000000000 x10

0.000000000000 x100


0.261591059620 x10-1

0.259293946010 x10-1


0.109574842280 x10-4

0.157101418800 x10-4


-0.938411115540 x10-7

0.438256272370 x10-7


-0.464120397590 x10-10

-0.252611697940 x10-9


-0.263033577160 x10-11

0.643118193390 x10-12


-0.226534380030 x10-13

-0.100634715190 x10-14


-0.760893007910 x10-16

0.997453389920 x10-18


-0.934196678350 x10-19

-0.608632456070 x10-21


0.208492293390 x10-24


-0.306821961510 x10-28

Table2: Type N thermocouple coefficents

Figure6: Type K Seebeck coefficient vs Temperature