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The "Not So Cool" Story of Refrigeration
Imagine a modern home without a refrigerator? Well, it’s hard to think what we would do without a refrigerator. Modern cities in developed countries depend heavily on refrigeration to keep perishable foods fresh and safe for daily consumption. Refrigeration technology has influenced agriculture, industry and lifestyle over the centuries, evolving from ice harvesting to temperature-controlled railway cars.
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 equipment and industrial freezing units.
The idea of soft drinks originated 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 texts 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 used large snow pits lined with tree branches and bark to cool drinks and keep fruit fresh. But only in Persian culture is the use of an ice pit called Yakhchal mentioned; this may be the precursor to cold storage of food for canning.
In the early 1800s, ice became a mass market commodity with a large majority of people using ice boxes to store dairy products, fish, fruit, meat and vegetables, thus paving the way for the acceptance of refrigeration technology.
Cooling – time frame
William Cullen, a Scottish professor was the first to consider 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 that 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 Great Britain in 1834, assembled the first closed-cycle vapor compression refrigeration system. Although the prototype, unpatented, 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, 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 design of a gas absorption refrigeration system referred to as “aquaammonia”, the process using gaseous ammonia 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 ‘coolants’, a practice which became widely used by the late 1920s.
A refrigerant is a substance or chemical used in a heat cycle, such as refrigeration, to turn a liquid into a gas.
By the early 19th century, refrigeration began to play a vital role in the food delivery industry first through natural ice and then manufactured ice. Many food and meat packing houses 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 mainly due to the size 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.
Cooling 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 household unit that eliminated the need for an engine and significantly reduced the size of the unit. However, the idea of a gas-powered unit was not liked by GE’s electric customers, so an electric model frame was commissioned.
In 1927, the Monitor Top, the world’s first electric powered refrigerator, was released. The idea created waves with many other companies building their own bandwagon to improve this new invention.
One of GE’s main competitors, Frigidaire entered the fray in 1930, synthesizing Freon as a refrigerant. This was a breakthrough that enabled the development of cheaper, lighter and smaller refrigerators for home use. At that time the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) was considered to be less harmful than the more commonly used refrigerants such as ammonia, methyl chloride and sulfur dioxide. The aim was to provide safer home devices at affordable prices.
Nowadays, home refrigerators have become stylish household appliances with 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, it was discovered that these CFC compounds were reacting with the protective atmospheric ozone layer, reducing the use of CFCs as refrigerants as stipulated in the 1987 Montreal Protocol. . Today, manufacturers have embraced the idea of using environmentally friendly refrigerants, such as hydrocarbons, as a means of combating global warming and reducing the impact of greenhouse gases.
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