My previous article about kettles left me wondering: Can gas hobs really waste more than half of the calorific energy in the gas? I decided to try a few more experiments and finally I think I have an answer: ‘Yes’. Gas hobs really do fail to transfer a great deal of the calorific energy in the gas to the pan or kettle they are heating.
Experiment#1 Rather than measuring the total time to reach 100 °C, I measured the rate of temperature rise. Because the heat capacity of water is well known, this allowed me to estimate how much thermal power was entering the water. So I spent a happy hour or so heating up various amounts of water: first 200g, then 400 g, 600g and finally 800g and I measured the temperature every 20 seconds.
I knew the burner power was 1.75 kW, and after a little jiggery pokery with a spreadsheet I estimated the power entering the water as a function of temperature rise.
￼The data is a little noisy but it shows that initially only about 850 W of the burner power reaches the water. Since this is 1750 W (nominal) burner, this raises the question of where the remaining 900 W of power is going! It is also interesting that rate of heat input to the water decreases with temperature rise such that the rate of heat input at the boiling temperature (roughly 80 °C temperature rise) is barely more than half the initial rate of heat input. I have calculated the radiated heat from the upper surfaces of the kettle and it cannot account for this.
Experiment #2 Now I fixed the amount of water (0.5 kg) but I used four different pans: a baby pan (0.487 kg: diameter 15 cm); a mother pan (0.601 kg: diameter 17 cm); a daddy pan (0.834 kg: diameter 19 cm) and a big daddy pan (1.8 kg: diameter 24.5 cm). I measured the water temperature at the start, heated for 60 seconds and measured the temperature again, and then heated for another 60 seconds. The results are shown in the chart below.
The main observation is that the water heats significantly faster in the largest pan. After 60 seconds the temperature of the water in the small pan had risen 20 °C whereas the water in the largest pan was 5 °C hotter – despite the extra 0.347 kg of steel that needed heating. This is consistent with the idea that a great deal of the heat energy is lost because the hot gas from the combustion does not remain in contact with the base long enough to transfer its heat. On small pans, hot gases escape around the edge of the pan.
I estimated the heat capacity of the pans and then calculated the fraction of the energy of the gas that the [pan + water] combination had captured. The data show a linear dependence on area with the largest pan capturing a plausible 83% of the calorific energy of the fuel.
Experiment #3 It occurred to me that the underside of the kettle (or pans) might become extremely hot and radiate a significant amount of energy. However borrowing a thermal camera from work, the hottest features I could see were only just over 200 °C. Even accounting for the considerable uncertainties in this estimate, the radiated energy from the base of the kettle is only a few tens of watts at most, and can’t account for the energy losses of hundreds of watts that I have observed. A picture of the kettle on the hob shows the strong heating of the base of the cooker and the handle – which was indeed too hot to hold.
So now a general picture emerges: although cooking with gas uses a primary fuel, typically half of that energy is lost on the hob. Using a large pan on a small flame, I managed to capture as much as 83% of the primary energy, but for a kettle, 50% is probably more typical. Using a large flame on a small kettle will easily waste more than 50% of the energy.
And I can now answer my initial question: Should I use an electric kettle (in which 60% of the primary energy is discarded at the power station, but which is essentially 100% efficient in my kitchen) or a gas kettle (in which nearly all the energy of the primary fuel is delivered but which is only rough 50% efficient in my kitchen)? My answer is that it makes very little difference. It is best to use whichever device allows you to easily boil the correct amount of water – and not to boil water which is then unused.