Albert Einstein, who passed away decades before the invention of the internet, has millions of fans on social media. Albert Einstein, who passed away decades before the invention of the internet, has millions of fans on social media. Einstein worked on a new refrigerator design from 1926 to 1933. (Photo: Central Press/Getty Images)

How Einstein's abandoned refrigerator design could feed the hungry and save the planet

Albert Einstein patented a refrigerator in the 1930s that doesn't use greenhouse gases and can run without electricity. So what happened to it?

Albert Einstein may have changed our view of the universe, but he was also human, and he spent just as much time eating as the rest of us. Perhaps that's why he invented a better refrigerator.

Actually, that's not why he did it. Five years after he won the Nobel Prize in Physics, Einstein heard about a family in Germany who died when a faulty refrigerator released toxic fumes. So he decided to create a fridge that couldn't do that (because given the choice between a refrigerator that releases toxic fumes and one that doesn't, everyone prefers the latter). He wanted to come up with a completely new, safer way to make refrigerators.

"Nothing truly valuable arises from ambition or from a mere sense of duty; it stems rather from love and devotion towards men and towards objective things," Einstein wrote in a letter that's currently kept in the Einstein Archives at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a university that the famous physicist helped establish.

Einstein and his student, Leo Szilard, invented a refrigerator with no moving parts that maintained a constant pressure, somehow eliminating the risk of toxic fumes once and for all. The scientists were granted 45 patents for the fridge's various models. This invention is possibly the most well-known of Einstein's product designs – he made several, including a suit jacket and an automatically adjusting camera.

einstein refrigeratorEinstein's refrigerator, annotated. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The product never made it to market at the time, but in 2008, scientists from England's Oxford University realized the fridge could reduce a different kind of toxic fumes: greenhouse gases.

It turns out that Einstein's design is much greener than the refrigerators we have today, which emit lots of greenhouse gases called "freons" into the atmosphere. Einstein's unusual design doesn't use greenhouse gases. (We don't have any reason to think that was on purpose, although the man certainly did care about animals.)

Environmentally friendly product design isn't something that would have made a splash in the 1930s, but it's a big deal today. The scientists were also interested in making the fridge even greener by using solar power to run it.

Plus, such an uncomplicated design offers other perks. "No moving parts is a real benefit because it can carry on going without maintenance," explained Malcolm McCulloch, an engineer at Oxford who worked on the fridge. "This could have real applications in rural areas."

And the Oxford scientists aren't the only ones embracing these "absorption refrigerators." Venture capitalist Adam Grosser gave a TED talk on a similar kind of fridge that could provide vaccines to disease-ridden areas without electricity. Unlike most modern fridges, Einstein's design runs on heat. Someone could theoretically run one of these with the heat from a campfire.

"You could make a low-pressure, non-toxic refrigerator," Grosser explained in his talk. "It's really cheap ... We think we can make refrigeration something everyone can have."

This year, 22-year-old designer Will Broadway won the James Dyson award for developing a refrigerator based on Einstein's in order to help keep vaccines cool in developing countries.

“It was such an innovative technology in 1929 that was forgotten and taken over by electric refrigeration," Broadway said. "It gives me the confidence to pursue it with my whole heart in the knowledge that I can actually make this device and that it could have a great impact for the benefit of thousands of people.”

When Albert Einstein came out with his great physics theories, other scientists didn't pay much attention at first. But as the years went on on and new technology made it possible to study space more clearly, it became obvious how convincing his theories were. So in a way, coming up with a theory of how the universe worked wasn't all that different than building an environmentally friendly, electricity-free fridge. Once again, Einstein was way ahead of his time.

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