Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Platinum Analogy: Catalytic Converters

26 Apr 2010: Had a long discussion with my dissertation student, Robert, today. We are trying to resolve his topic as the hand-in-date is getting very close. the most important thing is to get the Abstract right, because the rest of the dissertation can be built rapidly if the structure is completely agreed.
   When he set out, the project was in its infancy, and during that time, it took some misdirections (e.g. the plastic balls), and it suffered some delays (bereavement, pressure of work at Uni, waiting for deliveries, plumber etc) So he also had contingency plans for the topic in case I never completed the project - this would have been mainly around Photovoltaic and Feed-in-tariff policy. Anyway - there is now enough in the Sunbox project to build a dissertation around.

In discussing the long term future of Sunboxes, we realised that government policy can have a major effect on the prospects for a product. Clearly, legislation cannot be applied to products that do not yet exist. But if they come into being and are compellingly useful, the first stage is for them to be a luxury or an added extra. But if they are compelling enough, they can become a necessity, and even a mandatory requirement.

In trying to convey the potential of Sunboxes to the  reader, we realised that a useful analogous example would be the Catalytic Converter. This reduces the emissions from car engines, and is part of the exhaust system. It was originally an experimental invention from the early 50s, but did not take off. The US introduced tough emission regulations in the mid 70s when unleaded petrols began to be used, but still did not take off fully. They contain Platinum, a metal more valuable than Gold.
Without regulation, these would be difficult to sell to purchasers merely because they reduce emission - goodwill is not enough. But regulation can change things totally, which can make them universal, and would result in a reduction of manufacturing cost through volume production.
Since the turn of the century, these are installed in most cars, now that regulations in Japan, Europe and the US require them. So, even a small car will have one of these.

If GSHP emerges as a key technology for moving building design to Carbon Zero (based on the fact that they can use renewable electricity), I still believe from my personal experience of a GSHP that the COP will never be good enough to reduce their power consumption to a level that is satisfactory. Someone will demand improvements!
    If we can prove that Sunboxes, an inexpensive add-on, can improve the COP by a third or more, then there would be a good cause for them to be a 'required component' of a GSGP installation.
  How much does the benefit need to be quantified precisely? Or would people just accept that they are 'A Good Thing'. Catalytic Converters have been tested, and have quantified data about them. It's become clear that recent methods of calculating congestion charge, parking charges and road tax are based on emissions, not merely on engine size.


  1. Good article! Explaining details about catalytic converters.

    1. Thanks. Another analogy is that of elevators. The Safety elevator was invented in 1853, but was of very limited use, and the first Tall Building did not come along until 1883, thirty years later in Chicago. What was the reason? well, in the early days they were steam powered, and seen as suitable only for 2 or three storeys, for example in the first Department Stores. Electricity didnt come as a usable system until about 1881 after which it was possible to consider using an elevator over ten storeys. So the systems context in which an invention exists has to be right too. Until Ground source heat pumps are more commonly installed, there is less demand for solar charging of the ground.

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