Baltzar von Platen is known for providing one of the greatest services of the modern era, namely refrigeration. Von Platen was born in the city of Malmö, Sweden in 1898 and studied engineering at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. It was here that he met and collaborated with his fellow student Carl Georg Munters. The two took time off from classes and began to work on developing gas absorption refrigerators for domestic use. They intended to create an easy to use, portable machine that was free of any moving parts. The initial prototype, however, was bulky and contained at least one moving part, that is, a ball valve. However it was refined over time and made more compact and user friendly. It was the most ingenious creation of its time and was praised by the likes of Albert Einstein who reportedly admited being astonished by this marvelous invention.
The cooling process used in von Platen’s and Munter’s refrigerator was different from the one used in modern day refrigerators. Their refrigerator used a gas cooling process whereby a gas such as ammonia is mixed with water and heated until it evaporates. After this it is passed through a condenser and the cooled gas takes on a liquid form. Next it is passed through a saline solution, which in turn is used to cool the refrigeration unit. The ammonia is then converted to gaseous form again and the whole process can be repeated for continuous cooling.
This invention was a key development and changed the course of food preservation forever. Before it gained worldwide popularity, households, businesses and restaurants all used blocks of ice kept inside a cool box. The gas absorption refrigerator became immensely important for food storage, keeping away harmful bacteria and halting the decay process to keep food edible for much longer than had ever been possible before.
This technique was invented in 1922 and production had begun as early as 1923 by a company called AB Arctic. This company was acquired by Electrolux in 1925 who quickly expanded production overseas. The U.S. patent was bought by a company called Servel who were the sole producers and distributors in the U.S. for many years to come. It didn’t take long for refrigeration to become a worldwide phenomenon, and although the compressor methodology used today is different from von Platen and Munter’s technology, they were the first ones to introduce the concept of refrigeration to the world.
In the 1940s, von Platen worked with AESA, a major Swedish electrical company, to develop a process to produce diamonds. By many accounts, it was an impractical attempt which sucked in millions of dollars worth of research and development and yielded limited success. Von Platen was the quintessential “mad scientist” of fiction according to popular accounts. He thought up extravagant projects and tried to justify them at any cost – so far as to even reject the established laws of thermodynamics. One of his ambitious ventures was funded by Volvo but after much time and money spent on it with no results, the company backed out quietly. Von Platen had a facial disfigurement which gave him a disquieting appearance and he had a queer personality which many people, including his peers, found unsettling. Other than his initial success with refrigeration, he had no major breakthroughs. He died in 1984 at the age of 87.