Let's take a moment to look at the heat transfer equation. Looking at it, we can see the ways to get more efficient heat transfer
q / A = k dT / s
q / A = heat transfer per unit area (W/m2)
k = thermal conductivity (W/mK)
dT = temperature difference (oC)
s = wall thickness (m)
- use a material with a high thermal conductivity constant (like copper)
- thinner (!) material
- maintain a higher difference in temperature
The way these thawers work should now be easy to understand. (1) They are made of a material that has a very high thermal conductivity constant, like copper. The higher a material's thermal conductivity, the faster it can equalize it's temperature with that of the surrounding material.
Things that touch each other want to be the same temperature. When you put an ice cube on a sheet of room temperature copper, they are very different temperatures. But as soon as they touch, they want to be the same temperature, so heat transfer begins. Heat "flows" from the copper to the ice, increasing the temperature of the ice, and melting it. Heat also flows all throughout the copper itself, meaning that even the parts of the copper that are far away from the ice are losing heat.
With the copper losing heat, it quickly falls out of temperature equilibrium with the surrounding air. But the air and copper also want to be the same temperature, and so heat from the air "flows" into the copper, bringing it back closer to room temperature, which in turn allows the copper to heat up the ice some more....
The top of the copper plate is probably flat, to increase the amount of surface area in contact with the ice. The bottom of the copper plate, however, is probably ribbed or finned, to increase the surface area with the surrounding air, but without (2) creating more thickness!
We could also address (3) and heat the copper electrically, above room temperature, but then we run the risk of heating part of the food to that temperature as well. The benefit of using a passive copper heatsink is that the temperature will never rise above room temperature!