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Refrigeration is the process of removing heat from an enclosed space, or from a substance, and rejecting it elsewhere for the primary purpose of lowering the temperature of the enclosed space or substance and then maintaining that lower temperature. The term cooling refers generally to any natural or artificial process by which heat is dissipated. The process of artificially producing extreme cold temperatures is referred to as cryogenics.

Cold is the absence of heat, hence in order to reduce a temperature, one does not "add cold", rather one "removes heat." In order to satisfy the Second Law of Thermodynamics, some form of work must be performed to accomplish this. This work is traditionally done by mechanical work but can also be done by magnetism, laser or other means. However, all refrigeration uses the three basic methods of heat transfer: convection, conduction, or radiation.

Methods of Refrigeration

Non-Cyclic Refrigeration
In these methods, refrigeration can be accomplished by melting ice or by subliming dry ice. These methods are used for small-scale refrigeration such as in laboratories and workshops, or in portable coolers.

Ice owes its effectiveness as a cooling agent to its constant melting point of 0 °C (32 °F). In order to melt, ice must absorb 333.55 kJ/kg (approx. 144 Btu/lb) of heat. Foodstuffs maintained at this temperature or slightly above have an increased storage life. Solid carbon dioxide, known as dry ice, is used also as a refrigerant. Having no liquid phase at normal atmospheric pressure, it sublimes directly from the solid to vapor phase at a temperature of -78.5 °C (-109.3 °F). Dry ice is effective for maintaining products at low temperatures during the period of sublimation.

Cyclic Refrigeration
This consists of a refrigeration cycle, where heat is removed from a low-temperature space or source and rejected to a high-temperature sink with the help of external work, and its inverse, the thermodynamic power cycle. In the power cycle, heat is supplied from a high-temperature source to the engine, part of the heat being used to produce work and the rest being rejected to a low-temperature sink. This satisfies the second law of thermodynamics.

A refrigeration cycle describes the changes that take place in the refrigerant as it alternately absorbs and rejects heat as it circulates through a refrigerator. It is also applied to HVACR work, when describing the "process" of refrigerant flow through an HVACR unit, whether it is a packaged or split system.

Heat naturally flows from hot to cold. Work is applied to cool a living space or storage volume by pumping heat from a lower temperature heat source into a higher temperature heat sink. Insulation is used to reduce the work and energy required to achieve and maintain a lower temperature in the cooled space. The operating principle of the refrigeration cycle was described mathematically by Sadi Carnot in 1824 as a heat engine.

The most common types of refrigeration systems use the reverse-Rankine vapor-compression refrigeration cycle although absorption heat pumps are used in a minority of applications.

Cyclic refrigeration can be classified as:

  • Vapor cycle
  • Gas cycle

Vapor cycle refrigeration can further be classified as:

  • Vapor compression refrigeration
  • Gas absorption refrigeration

Vapor-Compression Cycle
The vapor-compression cycle is used in most household refrigerators as well as in many large commercial and industrial refrigeration systems. Figure 1 provides a schematic diagram of the components of a typical vapor-compression refrigeration system.

The thermodynamics of the cycle can be analyzed on a diagram[8][9] as shown in Figure 2. In this cycle, a circulating refrigerant such as Freon enters the compressor as a vapor. From point 1 to point 2, the vapor is compressed at constant entropy and exits the compressor superheated. From point 2 to point 3 and on to point 4, the superheated vapor travels through the condenser which first cools and removes the superheat and then condenses the vapor into a liquid by removing additional heat at constant pressure and temperature. Between points 4 and 5, the liquid refrigerant goes through the expansion valve (also called a throttle valve) where its pressure abruptly decreases, causing flash evaporation and auto-refrigeration of, typically, less than half of the liquid.

That results in a mixture of liquid and vapor at a lower temperature and pressure as shown at point 5. The cold liquid-vapor mixture then travels through the evaporator coil or tubes and is completely vaporized by cooling the warm air (from the space being refrigerated) being blown by a fan across the evaporator coil or tubes. The resulting refrigerant vapor returns to the compressor inlet at point 1 to complete the thermodynamic cycle.

The above discussion is based on the ideal vapor-compression refrigeration cycle, and does not take into account real-world effects like frictional pressure drop in the system, slight thermodynamic irreversibility during the compression of the refrigerant vapor, or non-ideal gas behavior (if any).

Vapor Absorption Cycle

In the early years of the twentieth century, the vapor absorption cycle using water-ammonia systems was popular and widely used but, after the development of the vapor compression cycle, it lost much of its importance because of its low coefficient of performance (about one fifth of that of the vapor compression cycle). Nowadays, the vapor absorption cycle is used only where waste heat is available or where heat is derived from solar collectors.

The absorption cycle is similar to the compression cycle, except for the method of raising the pressure of the refrigerant vapor. In the absorption system, the compressor is replaced by an absorber which dissolves the refrigerant in a suitable liquid, a liquid pump which raises the pressure and a generator which, on heat addition, drives off the refrigerant vapor from the high-pressure liquid. Some work is required by the liquid pump but, for a given quantity of refrigerant, it is much smaller than needed by the compressor in the vapor compression cycle. In an absorption refrigerator, a suitable combination of refrigerant and absorbent is used. The most common combinations are ammonia (refrigerant) and water (absorbent), and water (refrigerant) and lithium bromide (absorbent).

Gas Cycle

When the working fluid is a gas that is compressed and expanded but doesn't change phase, the refrigeration cycle is called a gas cycle. Air is most often this working fluid. As there is no condensation and evaporation intended in a gas cycle, components corresponding to the condenser and evaporator in a vapor compression cycle are the hot and cold gas-to-gas heat exchangers in gas cycles.

The gas cycle is less efficient than the vapor compression cycle because the gas cycle works on the reverse Brayton cycle instead of the reverse Rankine cycle. As such the working fluid does not receive and reject heat at constant temperature. In the gas cycle, the refrigeration effect is equal to the product of the specific heat of the gas and the rise in temperature of the gas in the low temperature side. Therefore, for the same cooling load, a gas refrigeration cycle will require a large mass flow rate and would be bulky.

Because of their lower efficiency and larger bulk, air cycle coolers are not often used nowadays in terrestrial cooling devices. The air cycle machine is very common, however, on gas turbine-powered 'jet' aircraft because compressed air is readily available from the engines' compressor sections. These jet aircrafts' cooling and ventilation units also serve the purpose of pressurizing the aircraft.

Thermoelectric Refrigeration
Thermoelectric cooling uses the Peltier effect to create a heat flux between the junction of two different types of materials. This effect is commonly used in camping and portable coolers and for cooling electronic components and small instruments.

Magnetic Refrigeration

Magnetic refrigeration, or adiabatic demagnetization, is a cooling technology based on the magnetocaloric effect, an intrinsic property of magnetic solids. The refrigerant is often a paramagnetic salt, such as cerium magnesium nitrate. The active magnetic dipoles in this case are those of the electron shells of the paramagnetic atoms.

A strong magnetic field is applied to the refrigerant, forcing its various magnetic dipoles to align and putting these degrees of freedom of the refrigerant into a state of lowered entropy. A heat sink then absorbs the heat released by the refrigerant due to its loss of entropy. Thermal contact with the heat sink is then broken so that the system is insulated, and the magnetic field is switched off. This increases the heat capacity of the refrigerant, thus decreasing its temperature below the temperature of the heat sink.Because few materials exhibit the required properties at room temperature, applications have so far been limited to cryogenics and research.

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