MOST AIR CONDITIONERS AND refrigerators are complex beasts, dependent on motors and whirring compressors. But Uwe Rockenfeller, president and CEO at Rocky Research in Boulder City, Nev., thinks there's a simpler way to stay cool. For the past 10 years, he and his company have been developing a radical chilling technology, with support from the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization.
The process involves suffusing a refrigerant--in this case, ammonia--into a complex solid chemical in a vessel equipped with a heating element. When the temperature of the solid is raised, the ammonia diffuses out, condenses, and then evaporates to provide cooling. The ammonia gas is then absorbed back into another hunk of the solid chemical in a separate vessel, where it can be heated to start the cycle over again. "There are no moving parts, no service required, and no noise," says Rockenfeller.
Now the technology is about to hit the market. Partner FMC Corp. has begun making vending machines that incorporate this cooling method, and in about six months, Igloo Products Corp. will begin selling a small portable cooler. But that may be just the beginning. Rockenfeller and his 23 employees are developing systems to cool computer chips and medical devices. They are testing a chiller for assembly lines at a Dove Bar ice cream plant and a Sara Lee Corp. turkey-processing factory. For the future, Rockenfeller envisions suits for firefighters and other emergency workers that would keep them cool even in a raging fire.