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The Einstein Refrigerator: Built to Last 100 Years



July 25, 2012 – Comments (8)

I would love to see a major change in thinking to provide safe food storage not only in places where electricity is intermittent/scarce, but also here in the US. Conventional refigerators are easily the biggest source of electricity usage in most households. It is time we started utilizing better refigerators. With the advent of really lightweight and low cost insulating materials (superior to those available in Einstein's day) a simple refrigeration system like the one in the Einstein design can be very effective. We have the technology.


The Einstein Refrigerator: Built to Last 100 Years
Story by blainedesign
Published on July 24, 2012

[See the original post for photos and links]

The unknown whiz-kid who whips up the next great invention in a garage is part of our modern mythology. But what happens when one of the greatest minds in theoretical physics takes on a completely mundane task, reinventing a common household appliance?

In 1926, five years after winning the Nobel Prize in Physics, Albert Einstein read a news story about the death of a Berlin family, killed by toxic fumes that leaked from a broken seal in their refrigerator. Dangerous leaks like this were becoming an alarmingly frequent occurrence as old-fashioned ice boxes were replaced with modern refrigerators that used poisonous coolants.

Einstein became preoccupied with this tragedy, insisting that a better refrigerator design must be possible. He and former student Leó Szilárd – a gifted young physicist who went on to conceive the nuclear chain reaction and electron microscope – set out to find one.

Their approach to the problem sidestepped all conventional thinking about refrigeration. Because refrigerator leaks are usually caused when bearings and seals wear out, the team believed they could prevent this danger by designing a device with no moving parts: no motor, no mechanical motion, nothing to wear out. They used their knowledge of thermodynamics to produce an absorption refrigerator, a device that drove a combination of safer gases and liquids through three interconnected circuits. It required only a small pilot light as a heat source and was hermetically sealed and safe — so safe that some experts estimate the casing could last 100 years.

Patent diagram for an Einstein-Szilárd refrigerator and a physical prototype with beautiful Art Deco styling, by engineer Albert Korodi.

There were many challenges to overcome. Some of the designs were too noisy, some not as efficient as they would have liked. But Einstein’s years as a patent clerk served the team well. Together, he and Szilárd received 45 patents in six countries for refrigeration technology.

Yet none of their inventions ever reached customers. A worldwide depression, growing political instability in Europe, and the introduction of the less-toxic coolant freon discouraged Einstein and Szilárd from continuing the project. Ultimately, appliance manufacturer AB Electro Lux bought their key patents, and that was the end of the Einstein refrigerator.

Or was it? Times have changed. A refrigerator that lasts 100 years and uses less energy looks tantalizingly attractive as we try to discover ways to live with more efficient, less disposable things. And concerns are mounting about the coolant freon, now recognized as a serious environmental hazard. Could the Einstein refrigerator be poised for a comeback?

It just might be. In 2008, Time honored scientists at Oxford University – led by engineer Dr. Malcolm McCulloch – with a “best invention” award for new research based on the Einstein-Szilárd designs. McCulloch said the Oxford team was developing more robust versions that could be used in areas without electricity, and that these improvements might quadruple the appliance’s efficiency. They’ve also looked into providing the necessary heat source through a small solar thermo device. “No moving parts is a real benefit because it can carry on going without maintenance,” McCulloch said. Dr. McCulloch told me earlier this month that the final paper on this project was now being written and will be made available to the public.

The Einstein refrigerator is an example of a design from the past with exciting new possibilities. We have become accustomed to thinking that all important inventions lie somewhere in the future. But when it comes to solving today’s problems, it feels good to know there might be good, useful, very smart ideas just waiting to be rediscovered. Although it’s 86 years old, the Einstein refrigerator could be one example of an idea whose time has finally come.

Karen Brown is an award-winning designer and creative director of the Center for Ecoliteracy. Her work has been included in the Smithsonian Institution and Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and featured in The New York Times, Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, and on Today on NBC. She believes that the handmade movement is a fundamental force for transforming society and the economy.

8 Comments – Post Your Own

#1) On July 25, 2012 at 2:36 PM, kdakota630 (28.79) wrote:


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#2) On July 25, 2012 at 3:09 PM, HighVoltage627 (< 20) wrote:

I would point out that the first working steam engine, the aeolipile, was first recorded in first century rome.  It took hundreds of years for practical applications to appear. 

I would say that this is far from the norm.  Inventions are created, seem to serve no purpose, or are impractical, and are discarded.  Later as times change, either other improvements make the old invention practical, or, as in this case, priorities change, making the old invention "better" based on new values.

 That being said, this is a wonderful article, and I cant wait to see what happens.  It strikes me that a solar powered version would be critically useful in an electrcially deficient area such as africa.  This could literally change the lives of billions.  Thank you for enlightening me binve.

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#3) On July 25, 2012 at 4:25 PM, binve (< 20) wrote:

kdakota630 ,

It's both cool and cool ..  :) Thanks!


That is a very good observation! Indeed there are many inventions that are very far ahead of their time, and like with this one, we would be very well served by revisiting the past and picking out the useful gems that great minds have left for us to re-discover.

It strikes me that a solar powered version would be critically useful in an electrcially deficient area such as africa.  This could literally change the lives of billions.

I had the same exact thought. Thanks!..

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#4) On July 25, 2012 at 11:41 PM, chk999 (99.96) wrote:

Absorbtion refrigerators aren't very efficient. The COP for them run from about .5 to 1. (Higher is better.) For a regular refrigerator, the COP is about 4, so you need to use four to eight times the energy to get the same amount of cooling. This only works out if you have a source of very cheap heat.

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#5) On July 26, 2012 at 8:50 AM, binve (< 20) wrote:

chk999 ,

I am aware of that. But COP isn't the only variable to play with. For the same net heat exchange to the environment (parasitic heat loss) the cooling system of a less efficient system has to work harder than a more efficient system. However a better insulated box can utilize a less efficient system to acheive the same interior temperature with the same (or less) enegy than a high efficiency system is a less well-insulated box. And a small solar collector / battery to provide charge at night could provide energy to a self-contained unit for use in remote places.

My point is, it is time for the refrigerator to be 'rethought'. And efficiency of a cooling system to replace the exact same boxes that we have is not the only (nor necessarily primary) variable if the expand your criteria for what a refrigerator should contain. And if your criteria is exteremely long life (which leads you to a no-moving part design) and no toxic chemicals then super-insulating passive designs make more sense, and my real point is that we have the technology to make a refrigerator like that operate more cheaply than standard refrigerator today. 

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#6) On July 26, 2012 at 1:25 PM, leohaas (30.08) wrote:

Very interesting. I can think of some places where this fridge could work miracles, especially if it can last 100 years.

I guess it is too late to invest in AB Electro Lux now. The patent protection has expired. Did they buy the patents to keep a potential competitor off the market (the first fridge sold by Electro Lux was an absorption model back in 1925)? Or did they buy the patents to improve on their model--improvements that never materialized?

No doubt producing a better insulated box would be great. But that by itself will not do for household fridges. In our household of 3 the door is opened close to 100 times a day...


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#7) On July 26, 2012 at 3:04 PM, ikkyu2 (98.21) wrote:

Here's an idea that's even further outside the (ice) box:  Refrigeration isn't necessary.  If you live far enough from something that it spoils by the time it gets to you, don't eat it.

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#8) On July 26, 2012 at 4:15 PM, chk999 (99.96) wrote:

If you want no moving parts, Peltier effect coolers do that and don't require a fuel hook up. Efficiency isn't awesome, but that may be susceptible to advanced engineering.

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