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Your next refrigerator could be a magnet

Posting in Energy

We all know refrigerator magnets (one of my favorites above). But we have yet to know magnetic refrigeration. Stay tuned.

Refrigerators. We sure can't live without 'em. But they turn us all into environmental thugs. They rely on hydrofluorocarbons - the so called "super greenhouse gases." They suck up more energy than anything else in our home.

It doesn't have to be that way.

Welcome to the future of chilling: Magnetic refrigeration.

No, not refrigerator magnets - those are already available, in case you haven't noticed ("Drink coffee! Do stupid things faster with more energy!" exhorts one of the many 2x3-inch plaques on my own tall, humming appliance. That's another pictured to the right).

But, I repeat, magnetic refrigeration. As the name implies, the technology deploys a magnetic field to extract heat. It uses the "magnetocaloric effect," for those of you who talk the talk.

I'll spare you the detailed explanation of how it works - otherwise I'd become a magnet myself, attracting all sorts of comments pointing out that I don't really understand the science. The basic idea seems simple: expose a material to a changing magnetic field, and the material turns into a refrigerant, drawing out heat.

Put that material in conventional refrigerator housing, and voila, your hamburger meat remains at 35 degrees F. The process runs on only 30-to-50 percent of energy that drives conventional methods.

Collects shavings, cools food.

So which materials do the trick? According to one source of mine, two different metal alloys can come in handy: lanthanum manganite, and gandolinium silicon germanium.

One big problem. Lanthanum and gandolinium are rare earth elements, and are hard to get a hold of, given China's well-known control of the rare earth trade. Or so my source says.

I imagine there are other challenges holding up the technology too. But some talented groups are working on solving these. Camfridge in Cambridge, England, is making advances, in partnership with appliance giant Whirlpool, Imperial College London, and others. The U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory also has a handle on magnetic refrigeration (see their video below).

This is a technology to watch. It makes me feel slightly more relaxed - chilled even - about the environmental future of pouring a refreshing glass of orange juice. Or of snapping open a cold one. Because, as another one of those fridge-mounted rectangles says, "Mmm..beer."

The DOE video:

Photos: Fridge magnet from Mark Halper. Horseshoe magnet from Oguraclutch via Wikimedia.

Some other rare (earth) developments, on SmartPlanet:

— By on September 20, 2012, 9:11 PM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure