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The "Not So Cool" Story of Refrigeration
Can you imagine a modern house without a refrigerator? Well, it’s hard to even think what we would do without refrigeration. Modern cities in developed countries rely heavily on refrigeration to keep perishable foods fresh and safe for daily consumption. Refrigeration has affected agriculture, industry and lifestyles throughout the centuries, from ice harvesting to temperature-controlled railway carriages.
Refrigeration is the name given to the process that “removes heat from one place to another” creating a cool or cold environment that has many applications such as domestic refrigerators, air conditioning systems, cryogenic facilities and industrial freezing units .
The idea of cooling drinks has its origins in the ancient Chinese and Roman empires. Seasonal harvesting of snow and ice is a practice dating back to before 1000 BC according to a collection of Chinese letters from the period known as the Shih Dynasty. The next mention of ice harvesting is in Jewish times and is mentioned in the book of Proverbs in the Bible. Other civilizations such as the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans made use of large snow pits lined with tree branches and straw to cool drinks and keep fruit fresh. But it was not until Persian culture that the use of an ice well called Yakhchal is mentioned; this may be the precursor to the cold storage of food for preservation.
In the early 1800s, ice became a mass-market commodity with a large majority of people using freezers to store dairy products, fish, fruit, meat and vegetables, paving the way for the acceptance of cooling technology.
Refrigeration: the timeline
William Cullen, a Scottish professor, was the first to examine the idea of artificial refrigeration by creating a partial vacuum over a container of diethyl ether that absorbed heat from the surrounding air. This was in 1755, but the experiment had no practical application at the time.
In 1758, professors Benjamin Franklin and John Hadley investigated the principle of evaporation as a means of rapidly cooling an object by conducting an experiment at Cambridge University.
In 1820, renowned British scientist Michael Faraday used high pressures and low temperatures to liquefy ammonia and other gases.
American scientist Jacob Perkins, working in Britain in 1834, assembled the first closed-cycle vapor compression refrigeration system. Although the unpatented prototype was the first known system to work successfully, it was not a commercial success.
American physician John Gorrie made a similar attempt in 1842, but again it was a commercial failure.
The first patented and practical vapor compression refrigeration system using alcohol, ether or ammonia came in 1856 built by James Harrison.
In 1860, Ferdinand Carre of France patented his gas absorption refrigeration system design known as “aqueous ammonia,” the process of using ammonia gas dissolved in water.
Meanwhile, an engineering professor at the Technical University of Munich in Germany had been working on an improved method of liquefying gases. In 1876 he patented this new process which was made possible by using gases such as ammonia, sulfur dioxide and methyl chloride as ‘refrigerants’, a practice which began to be widely used until the late 1920s of the last century
A refrigerant is a substance or chemical used in a heat cycle, as in the case of refrigeration, to turn a liquid into a gas.
In the early 19th century, refrigeration played a vital role in the food distribution industry first through natural ice and then manufactured ice. Many food and meat packing companies in America adopted ammonia cycle refrigeration units for their storage facilities.
With the idea of artificial refrigeration a great success, came the idea of refrigeration for domestic purposes. The limitations were largely due to the dimensions, as they were designed for installation in trucks, lorries and warehouses and the safety factor in case of fire accidents where toxic gases leaked or exploded.
Refrigeration for the home
In 1911, General Electric (GE) became the first company to overcome the challenges of meeting the cooling needs of the home. GE released a gas-powered home unit that eliminated the need for a motor and greatly reduced the size of the unit. However, the idea of a gas unit did not sit well with GE’s electric customers, so an electric model frame was put into operation.
In 1927, the Monitor Top, the world’s first refrigerator that ran on electricity, was launched. The idea created waves with many other companies hitching their wagon in the run-up to improving this new invention.
One of GE’s main competitors, Frigidaire entered the fray in 1930, synthesizing Freon as a refrigerant. This was a breakthrough invention that allowed for the development of cheaper, lighter and smaller refrigerators for home use. At the time, the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) was considered less harmful than commonly used refrigerants such as ammonia, methyl chloride and sulfur dioxide. The intention was to offer safer home equipment at affordable prices.
Today, home refrigerators have become stylish household appliances in a variety of designs, colors and sizes with different temperature control functions to meet the needs of small, medium and large families.
In the 1970s, as the world became aware of environmental concerns and global warming, these CFC compounds were found to react with the protective atmospheric ozone layer, decreasing the use of CFCs as refrigerants as set out in the Montreal Protocol of 1987. Today, manufacturers have embraced the idea of using green refrigerants such as hydrocarbons as a means to combat global warming and reduce the impact of greenhouse gases .
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