The Future of Heating: From Victorian Plumbing to Milliwave Rayguns

The Future of Heating: From Victorian Plumbing to Milliwave Rayguns

What’s the single biggest consumer of energy in the UK? Heat. More than transport. More than even electricity generation. Keeping our homes and offices warm costs us around £33 billion every year. So said a government strategy document back in March 2012.

It’s a shocking thought initially but easy to believe on reflection. Our position 53 degrees north sees us get cold winds and lots of rain, with 2012 being narrowly the second wettest year on record (2000 was the wettest, weather fans).

Consider our old, draughty houses (OK, yours may be newer and better insulated than mine) and primitive heating systems. Is burning gas to heat water and then pumping it around a load of copper pipes really the most efficient means of keeping the chill off? Good stats are hard to find but I’d suggest probably not based on the winner of last year’s MIT Clean Energy prize. Condensing boilers may be 90% efficient but the rest of the system simply can’t be an efficient way to deliver heat — certainly not in the haphazard way it is installed and insulated in most houses I have seen (including mine).

Underfloor heating and alternative radiators like the ThermaSkirt overcome some of this issue but still suffer the inefficiency of shipping water around. Electric heaters at least carry energy to the radiator in a reasonably efficient manner. But the heaters themselves suffer the same problem as any other radiator: they expend a lot of energy heating things that don’t matter.

In the long term I think we’re going to need a better solution. One that feels a little less Victorian than nests of copper pipes full of steaming water, or giant resistors with fans blowing over them — technology that would have been familiar to Tesla back in the 1800s.

Millimetre wave ray — may need redesigning to fit with your decorThere are options out there, though they may seem a little unpalatable to us today. Check out this article from Wired back in 2008. How do you like the idea of millimetre wave radiation bombarding you as you wander around the house, keeping you warm and only you? Its experimental microwave equivalent was estimated to use just 25% of the energy of current heating systems.

The idea of turning your home into a giant microwave/millimetre wave oven may make some a little squeamish. But we have overcome greater fears. Nuclear reactors raise fewer eyebrows than wind turbines these days. Microwave ovens are in almost every home, despite few of us understanding how they work and there being an incredible furore around them in the early years. And for all the noise around genetic modification, much of our meat is fed on genetically modified grains.

One day you may yet be heated in your home by a ray gun.

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This article is by Tom Cheesewright. This post forms part of the Future of Cities series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Future of Cities page.

Tom Cheesewright

Futurist speaker Tom Cheesewright is one of the UK's leading commentators on technology and tomorrow. Tom has worked with a huge range of organisations across a variety of markets, to help them to see a clear vision of tomorrow, share that vision and respond with agility. Tom draws on his experience to create original, compelling talks that are keyed to the experience of the audience but which surprise and shock with unexpected facts and examples.

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