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A History of Science, Volume 5(of 5) by Williams

The entire refrigerator industry


The

exact details of the various refrigerator machines of course vary, but all of them utilize the principles that the laboratory workers first established. Indeed, the entire refrigerator industry, now assuming significant proportions, may be said to be a direct outgrowth of that technical work which Davy and Faraday inaugurated and prosecuted at the Royal Institution--a result which would have been most gratifying to the founder of the institution could he have forecast it. The usual means of distributing the cooling fluids in the commercial plants is by the familiar iron pipes, not dissimilar in appearance (when not in operation) to the familiar gas, water, and steam pipes. When operating, however, the pipes themselves are soon hidden from view by the thick coating of frost which forms over them. In a moist beer-cellar this coating is often several inches in thickness, giving a very characteristic and unmistakable appearance.

Another commercial use to which refrigerator machines are now put is in the manufacture of various drugs, where absolute purity is desirable. As different substances congeal at different temperatures, but the same substances at uniform pressure always at the same temperature, a means is afforded of freeing a drug from impurities by freezing, where sometimes the same result cannot be accomplished with like thoroughness by any other practicable means. Indeed, by this means impurities have been detected where not previously

suspected. And Professor Ramsay has detected some new elementary substances even, as constituents of the air, which had previously not been dissociated from the nitrogen with which they are usually mixed.

Such applications of the refrigerator principles as these, however, though of vast commercial importance, are held by many enthusiasts to be but a bagatelle compared with other uses to which liquefied gases may some time be put. Their expectations are based upon the enormous potentialities that are demonstrably stored in even a tiny portion of, say, liquefied air. These are, indeed, truly appalling. Consider, for example, a portion of air at a temperature above its critical point, to which, as in Thilorier's experiments, a pressure of thirty-one tons to the square inch of the encompassing wall is being applied. Recall that action and reaction are equal, and it is apparent that the gas itself is pushing back--struggling against being compressed, if you will--with an equal power. Suppose the bulk of the gas is such that at this pressure it occupies a cubical space six inches on a side--something like the bulk of a child's toy balloon, let us say. Then the total outward pressure which that tiny bulk of gas exerts, in its desperate molecular struggle, is little less than five thousand tons. It would support an enormous building without budging a hair's-breadth. If the building weighed less than five thousand tons it would be lifted by the gas; if much less it would be thrown high into the air as the gas expanded. It gives one a new sense of the power of numbers to feel that infinitesimal atoms, merely by vibrating in unison, could accomplish such a result.

But now suppose our portion of gas, instead of being placed under our hypothetical building, is plunged into a cold medium, which will permit its heat-vibrations to exhaust themselves without being correspondingly restored. Then, presently, the temperature is lowered below the critical point, and, presto! the mad struggle ceases, the atoms lie amicably together, and the gas has become a liquid. What a transformed thing it is now. Instead of pressing out with that enormous force, it has voluntarily contracted as the five thousand tons pressure could not make it do; and it lies there now, limpid and harmless-seeming, in the receptacle, for all the world like so much water.


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