The developers of a new magnet-based cooling system claim their invention has brought the refrigeration industry to the “cusp of revolution.”
Engineers from GE Labs have developed a new type of refrigerator which threatens to oust traditional compression-based models from their century-long position of dominance.
The refrigerator they devised operates by means of a long-established scientific principle known as the magnetocaloric effect, which was first discovered by German physicist Emil Warburg toward the end of the 19th century.
The magnetocaloric effect refers to the propensity for certain types of alloys to increase in temperature when they approach magnets and cool down upon withdrawal.
The prototype takes advantage of this principle by means of a magnetic heat pump, which runs a water-based liquid through a cascading series of magnets, each step of which reduces the temperature by an increment.
The system employs a total of 50 such cooling stages which, when used in tandem, are capable of reducing temperatures by as much as 80 degrees.
The refrigerator has already passed a key test by successfully cooling down some bottles of light beer.
In terms of energy consumption, the magnetocaloric refrigerator represents a major advance upon conventional compression-based models, with GE engineers estimating that the new prototype enjoys an efficiency edge of between 20 to 30 per cent.
Compression-based refrigerators have already been around for about a hundred years, and can have an adverse impact on the environment because of their use of chemical refrigerants, which have made a significant contribution to ozone depletion and global warming.
At the moment, the prototype is still too big and unwieldy to conform to standard refrigerator dimensions, with researchers having just managed to shrink the technology from a massive cooling behemoth to a prototype the size of a cart.
Lead researcher Venkat Venkatakrishnan nonetheless believes that the new technology has brought industry to "the cusp of the next refrigeration revolution," and expects that a commercial model could be available on the market within a decade.