Tag Archives: radiation

Georgian interior design and efficient radiators

My lecture last week, to first year students studying thermodynamics, was about energy flows and, in particular, heat transfer.  I mentioned that, despite being called radiators, radiation from a typical central heating radiator represents less than a quarter of its heat output with rest arising from convection [see post entitled ‘On the beach‘ on July 24th, 2013 for an explanation of types of heat transfer].  This led one student to ask whether black radiators, with an emissivity of close to one, would be more efficient.  The question arises because the rate of radiative heat transfer is proportionate to the difference in the fourth power of the temperature of the radiator and its surroundings, and to the surface emissivity of the surface of the radiator.  This implies that heat will transfer more quickly from a hot radiator but also more slowly from a white radiator that has an emissivity of 0.05 compared to 1 for black surface.

Thus, a black radiator will radiator heat more quickly than a white one; but does that mean it’s more efficient?  The first law of thermodynamics demands that the nett energy input to a radiator is the same as the energy input required to raise the temperature of the space in which it is located.  Hence, the usual thermodynamic definition of efficiency, i.e. what we want divided by what we must supply, does not apply.  Instead, we usually mean the rate at which a radiator warms up a room or the size of the radiator required to heat the room.  In other words, a radiator that warms a room quickly is considered more efficient and a small radiator that achieves the same as large one is also considered efficient.  So, on this basis a black radiator will be more efficient.

Recent research by a team, at my alma mater, has shown that a rough black wall behind the radiator also increases its efficiency, especially when the radiator is located slightly away from the wall.  Perhaps, it is time for interior designers to develop a retro-Georgian look with dark walls, perhaps with sand mixed into the paint to increase surface roughness.


Beck SMB, Grinsted SC, Blakey SG & Worden K, A novel design for panel radiators, Applied Thermal Engineering, 24:1291-1300, 2004.

Shati AKA, Blakey SG & Beck SBM, The effect of surface roughness and emissivity on radiator output, Energy and Buildings, 43:400-406, 2011.

Image details:

Verplank 2 002<br />
Working Title/Artist: Woodwork of a Room from the Colden HouseDepartment: Am. Decorative ArtsCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 1767<br />
Digital Photo File Name: DP210660.tif<br />
Online Publications Edited By Steven Paneccasio for TOAH 1/3/14


Hot particles

diffraction pattern from nanoparticlesHave you ever wondered why people visiting the site of the Fukushima nuclear accident are only dressed up in coveralls and masks?  In my post on December 18th entitled ‘Hiding in the Basement’, I explained that gamma radiation requires a sheet of lead to stop it so the coveralls are clearly not protecting Fukushima visitors against radiation.

Our bodies cope with low levels of radiation everyday because we absorb about 0.024 Sieverts per year from the natural environment and the same amount is absorbed during a full-body scan in hospital.  One Sievert is equivalent to 1 Joule absorbed per kilogram of body mass. If you hold a tennis ball as high above your head as you can reach and let it fall to the ground, then the ball hits the ground with about 1 Joule of kinetic energy.  Your heart uses about 1 Joule of energy per beat.

The estimated maximum dose received by residents living close to Fukushima was 0.068 Sieverts or about three annual doses.  The visitors’ coveralls and mask are protecting them from ‘hot’ particles that are often produced during a nuclear accident. ‘Hot’ particles can be inhaled or ingested and continue to emit radiation when inside the body thus delivering a large concentrated dose to a relatively small number of surrounding cells, which are disrupted and destroyed by the high-levels of energy.  ‘Hot’ particles are small pieces of radioactive material and vary in size from tens of nanometres to a few millimetres, so that they don’t have high penetrating power and can be detected using a Geiger counter.