Consider the temperature distribution along the one-dimensional fin in Fig.1.
A one-dimensional continuous temperature distribution with an infinite number of unknowns is shown in (a). The fin is discretised in (b) – i.e. divided into 4 subdomains (or elements). The nodes are numbered consecutively from left to right, as are the elements. The elements are first order elements; the interpolation scheme between the nodes is therefore linear. Note that there are only 5 nodes for this system, since the internal nodes are shared between the elements. Since we are only solving for temperature, there are only 5 degrees of freedom in this model of the continuous system. It should be clear that a better approximation for T(x) would be obtained if the number of elements was increased (i.e. if the element lengths were reduced). It is also apparent that the nodes should be placed closer together in regions where the temperature (or any other unknown solution) changes rapidly. It is useful also to place a node wherever a step change in temperature is expected and where a numerical value of the temperature is needed. It is good practice to continue to increase the number of nodes until a converged solution is reached.
In (c), the fin has been divided into two subdomains – elements 1 and 2. However, in this instance we have chosen to use a second order (quadratic) element. These elements contain ‘midside’ nodes as shown, and the interpolation between the nodes is quadratic which permits a much closer approximation to the real system. For this model system there are still just 5 degrees of freedom. However, the analysis takes longer for (c) than it does for (b) because the quadratic interpolation (which calculates the temperature at locations between the nodes) is more demanding than the corresponding linear case.
(There is often a trade-off between a high number of first order elements requiring little computation and a smaller number of second order elements requiring more heavy computation to be made, which affects both the analysis time and the solution accuracy. The choice depends to a large extent on the problem being solved.)