What happened when the author of the world’s most famous equation set out to redesign a common household appliance?
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.
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.