More Magnets for your Fridge

Those of us in temperate climates are fond of our refrigerators, and no wonder—without them we’d be living off of beef jerky and warm beer like cowboys or English people.  However, even though today’s stainless steel behemoths are a lot more energy efficient than June Cleaver’s fridge, the fact is the technology hasn’t changed all that much in the last 50 years, and it’s probably the most eco-unfriendly appliance in your home. 

However, now researchers at the Technical University of Copenhagen in Denmark say they’ve got a practical technology that will keep your stuff cold using magnets rather than a power glutton of a compressor.

If you follow developments in the world of magnetic refrigeration—and who doesn’t?—you’ll know that the idea has been around for a while. Basically it works because certain types of material (typically the element gadolinium, which for various reasons I don’t understand, is best suited to the task) produce heat when magnetized. When the magnet is removed from the material it becomes cold again. The heat that’s been generated is then transferred to a liquid and pumped out of the box, while the inside stays cold. Or something like that.

There are a couple of major green advantages to the magneto-fridge. Scientists estimate that a commercial model would consume only about 60 percent of the electricity of even today’s energy efficient appliances. Beside that, it would employ water as refrigerant fluid, replacing ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons that are still used in some older refrigerators. It would also have fewer moving parts than current appliances, making it less prone to breakdown. What’s more, a magnetic fridge would be almost entirely silent, except for the occasional “clunk” of the icemaker. 

One of the reasons why this breakthrough hasn’t hit your kitchen yet is that in its current state it still doesn’t make things cold enough. The Copenhagen team was able to reduce temperature from 20 degrees Celsius (68 F) to 11.3 degrees Celsius (52 F), a big step compared to what’s been done in the past, but still in salmonella territory.

Once perfected, it’s expected that the same technology could be used to cool houses and cars with similar energy savings. However, that’s probably still a ways off—the scientists in Denmark don’t expect to see a commercial application until 2010.


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