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Scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed a quantum refrigerator that’s able to cool very large objects to temperatures nearing absolute zero.
But hold your horses, food techies. If you’re hoping this device will have some kind of consumer value—like, to instantly chill beer or something—you’re flush out of luck. The cooling process took roughly 18 hours.
That said, it was able to cool an object larger and heavier than itself to about -457° F. Researchers envision this prototype “fridge” as having a mostly industrial or scientific function. According to the NIST, such a machine is ideal for improving performance of quantum information systems, telescope cameras, and spacecraft electronics. It may also help in the search for dark matter and dark energy.
Here’s how it works: A voltage is applied to 48 tiny cooling elements, each of which are made up of an undisclosed metal, an incredibly thin insulating layer, and a superconducting metal. The hottest of the charged electrons are tunneled from the first metal layer through the insulator and to the superconductor. The temperature in the normal metal consequently plummets, draining energy from the object being cooled—in this case, a slab of copper. Interestingly, the cooling power-to-size ratio of the element to the copper is equivalent to that of a window-mounted AC unit cooling a building the size of the Lincoln Memorial.
“It's one of the most flabbergasting results I've seen," said project leader Joel Ullom. "We used quantum mechanics in a nanostructure to cool a block of copper. The copper is about a million times heavier than the refrigerating elements. This is a rare example of a nano- or micro-electromechanical machine that can manipulate the macroscopic world."
All that this means for regular fridge fanatics, though, is that the rapid-cooling function you’re searching for will, at least for the time being, be reserved to LG’s Blast Chiller.
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