How do refrigerators work?

To achieve a cooling effect the fridge relies on the simple notion of evaporation, absorbing heat when a liquid changes its state. This evaporation is the central principle of the refrigeration cycle, a perpetual loop in which a refrigerant is forced to change state in order to invoke heat absorption.

The cycle begins with the refrigerant in a vapour state, which is then pressurised in an internal compressor. This compression forces the refrigerant to heat up before being sent outside of the fridge into a condenser and expelled into the surrounding area, cooling the refrigerant vapour in the process and condensing it into a highly pressurised liquid state. This liquid is then sucked through an expansion valve and back into the low-pressure fridge compartment causing the refrigerant to boil, vaporise and drop in temperature, cooling the compartment in the process. The cycle then begins again, with the low-pressure refrigerant vapour being sucked up into the compressor.

Fridges through the ages

1700 BCE – Ice houses

Ice House

Ice House

Zimri-Lim, the king of Mari in Syria, ordered the construction of an ice house, which no previous king had ever built. Ice was collected from nearby mountains and stored in pits in the ground so it would remain cool. Ice houses were still used in the UK and USA right up until the 20th century.

1400 BCE – Evaporative coolers

Without access to ice, ancient Egyptians stored wine in earthenware jars called amphorae. They would leave the amphora outside during the cool nights, and slaves would sprinkle them with water. The cold wind caused the water to evaporate, slowly cooling the wine inside.

400 BCE – Yakhchal

Yakhchal of Yazd province

Yakhchal of Yazd province

To store ice in the desert, Persians built mud brick domes. In winter, water was led into channels underground and left to freeze. The ice was moved into the yakhchal, which had two parts: the dome and a pit. Warm air rose, leaving cold air underground to chill the ice.

1805 – Ice box

Ice box

Ice box

The ice harvesting industry took off in the 19th century and it became common for people to have an ice box in their home. They were made of wood, lined with metal and insulated with straw or cork. Ice was delivered every few days and placed inside to keep food from spoiling.

1748 – Artificial refrigeration

Artificial refrigeration was first demonstrated by Scottish chemist William Cullen, but in 1834 US inventor Jacob Perkins built the first refrigerating machine. However, early fridges were expensive and used toxic gases as refrigerants, making any faulty leaks deadly.

1920s – Domestic fridges

Early fridge

Early fridge

Early domestic fridges were still dangerous and cost more than a car, but soon a much safer refrigerant chemical called Freon was developed and the fridge soon became a common feature of most kitchens. Over the next few decades, they became even cheaper and more eco-friendly.

Discover more amazing technology in the latest issue of How It Works. It’s available from all good retailers, or you can order it online from the ImagineShop. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the digital version onto your iOS or Android device. To make sure you never miss an issue of How It Works magazine, make sure you subscribe today!

Plus, make sure you also check out our digital-only specials, such as Amazing InventionsExplore Mars and A Guide To The Galaxy, available to download onto your digital device now!

How did the first electric refrigerators work? 

Why must fridges be properly disposed of?

Your smart home of the future