By: Larissa, Mimi, Tom
It is time to reform the refrigerator as we know it in order to create a design that better addresses some of its problems encountered within the kitchen or the interior space at large, namely spatial issues, noise pollution, food waste and environmental sustainability.
The Past (past problems):
In the age of “best by” dates, we tend not to think of it this way, but food, in fact, begins to decompose the second it is picked from the plant or killed. Times of plenty (with large prey and harvests) necessitated methods for preserving food through unlucky hunts or harvests, and our ancestors, wherever they were, developed a range of methods for dealing with food decomposition, including drying, freezing, fermenting, pickling, curing and canning.
Drying fish technique
Each of these methods brought with it other health and economic challenges. Properly done, they are generally labor- and time-intensive and require large amounts of salt and/or sugar to preserve the food. Improperly done, poorly preserved foods can kill both slowly, in remote areas where food surpluses and healthcare are hard to come by, and quickly, through food poisoning.
Artificial cooling, outside of burying food in ice, was developed in the early 1800’s, and became ubiquitous in the home only in the early 1900’s. As the technology developed further and home cooling systems for food preservation (what we term refrigeration) became more popular and more affordable, the systems became larger and larger, coming to include both separate freezing elements, as well as different internal compartments to control for ideal temperature and humidity levels. Today, in the developed world and much of the developing world, we could not conceive of a home without at least some small refrigeration element for preserving food.
The Present (modern problems):
Although the modern refrigerator provides many solutions for food preservation problems of the past, there are many obstacles refrigerator innovators have yet to overcome. As communities’ needs and demands develop with the progression of social awareness, the need for a new way of cooled food storage becomes more in demand.
The kitchen space has always been a space of function and quick usage. Unless you are the owner of a large abode, it is common to see a kitchen stuffed into a small corner in the floor plan. The result is a small kitchen that must house a large modular fridge- that of which will consume at least 10% of the overall kitchen space. When looking into the structure of the actual product, one will realize too large of the portion of the fridge is dedicated to the inner mechanics such as the motor, fan and compartmental spacing. The actual space usage allocated to food storage could be maximized as the inner mechanics sizes minimized. Especially in the endlessly growing populations of New York City, where apartment sizing is a constant struggling issue, one may appreciate a fridge that did not pose such a threat on spatial surface area.
Most refrigerators emit a continuous humming noise as a result of the working compressor which circulates the coolant around the vicinity of the appliance. Although noiseless fridges do not exist yet, modern appliance companies have found ways to diminish the noise pollution of fridges by inserting a more silent and stable coolant. As an appliance that is constantly running, constant clicking and groaning noises emitted from your fridge can be extremely annoying. The reason may not only be the coolant or the compressor working, but can often be the result of panels inside the appliances contracting or expanding to the changes of temperature. Long terms of constant exposure to noise pollution can cause stress levels and sleeping disorders to rise, especially living in an area where contribution is from many different factors.
Refrigerator temperatures do not destroy spoilage microorganisms. Instead, they slow the growth of the microorganisms already in the food. The usage of air space within the fridge may sometimes provide uneven cooling areas within the appliance. Products stored closely, and on top of each other prevents cooling airs to circulate evenly. Along with the obstruction of visibility due to overcrowding of the fridge, many food products go to waste as we forget what we store inside the compartments, or behind other food items. Furthermore, in a busy life, once an item has been stored in the fridge, it is easy to forget their shelf life, which may lead to unwanted food poisoning.
Over the past years, refrigerators have become a lot more efficient in terms of energy usage. In 1990, a refrigerator (without icemaker) used 1100 kWh whereas in 2010 it went down to 500 kWh. Energy usage has dropped by half over the course of the past 20 years. This is a major achievement in energy efficiency, however, considering the rising global temperatures and climate change it is not good enough. In today’s homes, the refrigerator is still the biggest energy consumer (13.7%) after the air-conditioner (14.1%). In addition, today’s refrigerator requires leftover food to be wrapped and often times people use non environmentally friendly plastic containers or wrap.
The Future (the solutions):
Each year, the Swedish home appliance manufacturer Electrolux organizes a design competition. In 2010, the theme revolved around designing household appliances for the urban home of 2050. Russian student Yuriy Dmitriev came up with a very futuristic idea and proposed the “Bio Robot Refrigerator”, which uses a “biopolymer gel through luminescence” to keep the food cold.
So-called colonies of “biomechanical robots” would essentially transform “invisible infrared radiation into visible light”. This process is called “luminescence”. The cooling essentially happens by absorbing heat energy and radiating it in a different range of wavelengths. This cooling process results in the emission of a lime-green-colored, odorless, non-sticky gel that morphs around each item placed into the refrigerator, creating separate pods and identifying the optimal cooling and storage temperature for each item. In addition, the gel protects from ultraviolet radiation that can damage the food.
There is also no requirement for a door and you can simply reach through the gel to get the products. This contributes to saving considerable space inside the fridge as well in the kitchen. 90% of the appliance is actual usable space for food and product storage, and it is four times smaller than a normal-sized fridge. It’s size varies according to how many products you store inside and how much gel is being needed.
The fridge is also designed in a way that it could be mounted either vertically or horizontally on the wall, or even the ceiling when in zero gravity. This design feature would be a great solution for space issues inside a growing urban environment with smaller apartments.
From a food waste perspective, the fact that your food is visible at all times helps you be more aware of what you have inside your fridge and what needs to be consumed before it starts rotting away inside.
When it comes to noise pollution, this fridge does not require any motor and thus eliminates the humming noises that current fridges produce and that can keep you from a good night’s’ sleep.
From a design perspective, one may debate whether the lime-green color of the gel would really be aesthetically pleasing to look at all day inside a home. There could be more appropriate color choice options. It could also trigger a positive change in product marketing and push for the development of more decorative and sustainable product packaging development in the future.
As of now, this refrigerator merely exists as a design prototype (watch video clips) and needs research and development. From the existing information, it is not yet fully clear how energy sustainable this fridge really is and also how food leftovers (especially meat) can be appropriately stored inside the gel without using any packaging and making sure it is antibacterial and sanitary. Despite the couple shortcomings such as the questionable lime-green color or the unresolved energy efficiency question, this design prototype offers a design solution that starts addressing some of the current problems encountered in the modern urban kitchen environment.