Salting roads before winter storms is a familiar sight in the Northeast. The purpose is to change the temperature at which ice can form on the road. The underlying concept has formed the basis of a new method of refrigeration that has been dubbed “ionocaloric cooling.”
It is described in a paper published in the journal Science by researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The method takes advantage of how energy in the form of heat is either stored or released when a material changes phase – such as water changing from ice to liquid and vice versa. Melting absorbs heat from the surroundings while freezing releases heat. An ionocaloric refrigerator makes use of this phase and temperature change using an electrical current to add or remove ions provided from a chemical salt.
The potential is to make use of this refrigeration cycle instead of the vapor compression systems in present-day refrigerators, which make use of refrigerant gases that are greenhouse gases, many of which very powerful ones. The goal is to come up with a system that makes things cold, works efficiently, is safe, and doesn’t harm the environment.
There are a number of alternative refrigeration systems under development that make use of a variety of mechanisms including magnetism, pressure, physical stretching, and electric fields. Ionocaloric cooling uses ions to drive solid-to-liquid phase changes.
Apart from some very promising theoretical calculations of the system’s potential, the researchers have also demonstrated the technique experimentally. They have received a provisional patent for the technology and are continuing to work on prototypes to demonstrate its capabilities and amenability to scaling up.
Photo, posted October 29, 2021, courtesy of Branden Frederick via Flickr.