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Magnetic Refrigerator Developed

AMES, Iowa (AP) - Scientists at the Ames Laboratory say they have created the world's first magnetic refrigerator, which someday may save consumers money on energy bills and be better for the environment.

``We're witnessing history in the making,'' said Karl Gschneider Jr., senior metallurgist at the U.S. Department of Energy (news - web sites) lab said Monday.

Laboratory researchers have worked for years to develop magnetic refrigeration as an alternative to traditional cooling systems, which emit gases that contribute to global warming.

The new refrigerator uses a special metal that heats up when exposed to a magnetic field, then cools when the magnetic field is removed. It is the first device to operate at room temperature and use a permanent magnet rather than large, awkward superconducting magnets.

The rotary design features a wheel that is constructed of an alloy known as gadolinium which heats up when passed through a high-powered magnet. As the material leaves the magnetic field, the material cools down.

The result is a system that is nearly silent, because it is vibration free.

Gschneider said magnetic refrigeration could someday power air conditioners, freezers and other commercial and household systems.

He said the technology also would save money because the magnets do not require energy inputs to make them work.

``So the only energy it takes is the electricity for the motors to spin the wheel and drive the water pumps,'' he said.

Initially the new appliances would run on 110 volts of power, but battery-operated versions are a possibility in the future, Gschneider said.

A breakthrough occurred at the Ames Laboratory when researchers Sasha Pecharsky and Vitalij Pecharsky developed a process for producing large quantities of gadolinium, which is capable of producing a stronger magnetic field and improves the refrigerator's efficiency.

The Ames scientists are developing magnetic refrigeration for Astronautics Corp. of America of Madison, Wis., which wants to market the technology to the public. The company took over the concept from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1985 and devoted millions of dollars to research.

The Department of Energy and Astronautics Corp. are sharing the cost of the project, Vitalij Pecharsky said. The Ames Laboratory has spent about $2 million in federal money on the concept, he said.

The researchers hope commercial production will start in about a year with a major refrigeration or air conditioning company purchasing the patent rights to manufacture appliances. Consumers probably won't see the first model for sale for about eight years, Gschneider said.

Gschneider said the new appliances will likely cost more than the top of the line products on the market today, but will come down in cost as manufacturers produce more.

He said he has estimated that within five years, the new appliance will have saved enough money through more efficient operation to pay for the higher up-front purchase price.

Magnetic refrigeration was discovered by scientists in the 1920s, with slow improvements about every 20 years, Gschneider said.

-- Anonymous, January 01, 2002

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