Ice (source wired.com)
As I started writing this, my main aim was to showcase how open knowledge/information/data is helpful for humanity’s aspirations going forward especially when the benefit of such information may not be immediately obvious. So I started writing about unified gas laws and what they meant for refrigeration.
When I asked a friend to review the first draft of this blog…………………..well to put it short, she said she wasn’t in high school anymore and that I should tone down on the science….so out went the equations, diagrams and flow charts, more than five paragraphs of. I guess I went overboard somewhat.
So I looked for something online that would explain the science for me to those who would be interested and I landed on a PBS video (thank God Romney lost!) embedded here called The Race for Absolute Zero.
Now this video is UBER amazing (source youtube.com)
As a trade off (I was particularly insistent on not being proud of this if there was no science anywhere), I was allowed one paragraph to mention briefly about pressure, volume and temperature, provided I leave out diagrams, flow charts and especially chemical equations, sigh….here goes.
Your regular fridge works by compressing a gas, usually tetrafluroethane. On increase in pressure, the temperature increases and the gas liquefies. This gas liquid is circulated around your fridge and then there is a sudden release of pressure. When pressure is released, the liquefied gas immediately changes state back into gas, absorbing heat from its environs thereby cooling food inside the fridge.
So enough science then, what you need to know about is Frederick Tudor. The Ice King.
When this young Bostonian bought his first ship in 1860 to export ice from the fresh water ponds of Boston Massachusetts to countries as far away as India, most people must have thought he was mad….he wasn’t, here’s why, “It takes the same amount of heat to melt a block of ice as it does to heat an equivalent quantity of water to around 80 degrees Celsius. This meant that ice took a long time to melt, even when shipped to hotter climates.”1
While the era was well into the industrial age labour was still heavily manual and it’s no surprise hat towards the end of the 19th century, the ice business employed tens of thousands of people, and Tudor was their first king! (If you’re still wondering why labour was heavily manual, imagine driving your one tonne tractor into the middle of the frozen lake and then cracking the ice sheet……)
An old ice box refrigerator (source sciencemuseum.org.uk)
It is worth noting that during this time, ice was a preserve of the rich, collected over winter and stored in covered wells for use in summer. Tudor changed this. By 1865, two out of three homes had ice delivered in Boston. Now the benefits of this are easily imaginable, if not, try and imagine yourself without that piece of machinery in your kitchen that you’re clearly taking for granted!
How profitable was this for Mr Tudor? Very! In the early 1800, one shipment used to earn him around $6000, one shipment. Let’s try and put that into context, 6,000 dollars in 1865 would be worth 89,500 dollars in 20122. On one shipment alone he could very easily afford six out of ten cars on this list.
Although by the 1840′s other ice merchants were on the rise, Mr Tudor will always be remembered as the first………then things started changing.
The second law of thermodynamics (source fkm.utm.my)
The latter half of 1800 ushered in the laws of thermodynamics (for dummies link). The understanding of heat flow paved way for the first industrial ice plants, severely undermining ice merchants who still depended on harvesting ice from ponds.
Ice harvesting in china (source treehugger.com)
Upon the industrialisation of ice production, ice became more easily available. Weekly deliveries of ice became more routine and people’s diets improved with food becoming more easily preserved ensuring fruits and vegetables became available out of season! Plus lager production improved! A definite plus!
And so we moved on to household electrified refrigerators, let me quote Absolute Zero on an extra benefit of refrigeration, “The electric power companies loved refrigerators because they ran all day and all night. They may not have used that much power for each hour but they continued to use that, so one of the ways that they sold rural electrification was the possibility of having your own refrigerator.”
Talk about two for one…….fresh food and lighting.
Not satisfied with just keeping food fresh, innovators took the ball and ran with it! Building on the properties of compressed gas, these are just some of the end products.
Modern refrigerator and air conditioner (source Samsung.com)
MRI machine (source howstuffworks.com)
A quantum processor (popsci.com)
From the freezer (kept food fresher by preserving nutrients through fast freezing) to air conditioning, the MRI machine and now quantum computing the benefits of refrigeration cannot be overstated whether in day to day life or in the biological and physical research arena.
A quick search online revealed that there are ten million refrigerators sold in the US annually! Today the science of making things cold is easily worth a few tens of billions if not hundreds of billions of dollars, and the thought of how life would be on that very hot day without AC in the office, or watching that football game when its blazing hot outside without a cold lager in hand is a reality we thankfully don’t have to face.
As expressed above the purpose of this blog was to showcase the benefits of open information, especially when least obvious.
Michael Faraday (source Wikipedia.org)
In 1823, Michael Faraday, more known for his work with electricity and magnetism, carried out an experiment on the clathrate hydrate of chlorine.
He heated one end of a closed vial containing the hydrate while keeping the other end in ice. He then noticed something peculiar; in the cold end an oily yellow liquid began settling. Faraday’s curiosity took him over and he decided to investigate this yellow liquid.
He picked up the vial and cracked it open sending shards of glass everywhere, but the yellow liquid was gone. Yet he could smell chlorine in the air.
He deduced that upon heating, he increased the pressure within the vial and liquefied the chlorine and that when he broke the vial he released the pressure and the liquid turned into gas again. He was brilliant enough to realise that the process of turning from liquid to gas had absorbed heat from its surroundings and wrote about it…………….yet he saw no commercial gain from this new phenomenon he was describing…….refrigeration.
To say that Faraday’s experiment gave as the modern fridge would, well be farfetched. However, to say that by publishing his experiment he played a major role in development of refrigeration would not be an overstatement.
The modern machine that sits in your kitchen wasn’t one man’s work, it is a fete achieved only through collaborative science…….from Farady who first described the phenomenon, to the works of a little know French engineer Sadi Carnot who essentially published one of the first works on thermodynamics. To James Joule who built on it and really gave us the first law, through Lord Kelvin…..and many, many more scientists and innovators who through experimentation and publishing of results paved way for the modern fridges we have now.
Who knows what would have happened if these great thinkers had hoarded their achievements, maybe I wouldn’t have this very nice cooler in the sitting room, who knows…..?
What I do know, however, is when I pick up the cold one from the fridge to watch the football match this weekend, I will raise a toast to the many great minds who unknowingly collaborated to handily hand me the cold beer…..rather than having to wait on that block of ice from Boston to arrive!
1 watch the video
2 thanks to the davemanuel.com inflation calculator