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    Home : Math Matters - A Brief Look at How Mathematics has Influenced Modern Life : Air Conditioning & Refrigeration
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Free Printed Poster

Air Conditioning & Refrigeration

The refrigerator is one of those miracles of modern living that totally changed our lives. The basic idea behind a refrigerator is that it uses the evaporation of a liquid to absorb heat. The liquid, or refrigerant, evaporates at an extremely low temperature so it can create freezing temperatures.

The most widely used refrigeration principle is vapor compression, also referred to as the reverse-Rankine cycle. It operates around the refrigerant’s saturation curve (shown in green):

The refrigerant starts as a gas and is compressed and cooled to a liquid. The liquid is throttled to a lower pressure and evaporated to absorb heat, and recycled to be compressed once again, completing the cycle.

This cycle takes advantage of the universal gas law:


P is pressure, V is volume, R is the universal gas constant, T is temperature, and n is the number of moles of gas (1 mole = 6.022x1023 molecules).

William John Macquorn Rankine (Scottish, 1820 - 1872) was an engineer and physicist. He was a founding contributor to the science of thermodynamics.

Sadi Nicolas Léonard Carnot (French, 1796 – 1832) discovered that the efficiency of a heat engine depended only on its input and output temperatures. The Carnot cycle is thought of as the most efficient heat engine cycle allowed by physical laws..
Jacob Perkins (American, 1766-1849) built the first practical refrigerating machine
in 1834. It used ether in a
vapor-compression cycle.
James Harrison (Scottish, 1816-1893) created the first commercial ice-making machine in 1854. The machine employed
a 5 m flywheel and produced 3000 kg of ice per day.