Icy Ball

Icy Ball

In the early part of the 20th century, it was thought that inexpensive refrigeration would be a great boon for mankind.IcyBall was a name given to two early refrigerators, one made by Australian Sir Edward Hallstrom in 1923, and the other design patented by David Forbes Keith of Toronto, Ontario, Canada (filed 1927, granted 1929), and manufactured by American Powel Crosley Jr., who bought the rights to the device. Both devices were unusual in design in that they did not require the use of electricity for cooling. As supplied, they ran on for a day on about a cup of kerosene and this allowed rural areas without the luxury of electricity to utilise the benefits of refrigeration.

The following text relates to the Canadian/American version of the device.

Daily use

We had no electricity, and our icehouse was not big enough to supply us with ice all summer. So we used the icyball. There was a daily routine to keep an icyball running. The following procedure was for the very icyball now in the Henry Ford Museum.

The Canadian version of the device came with a cooling chest that looked like a modern freezer, with the door opening upwards. It also required a large tub for water to cool one ball of the device, a mounting bracket to steady the device on the edge of the tub, and a blue-flame kerosene burner mounted in a tray. On one side of the burner tray was the burner and on the other side, connected by a tube, was an upturned cup into which you would fit a little tin of kerosene. The little tin of kerosene had a domed cap that had two small holes in it, so as to allow the kerosene to slowly dribble into the burner cup, tube, and burner. Fastened to the tube that went between the can and the burner was a float level.

In the morning when we got up, we would start a fire, and put a kettle on to boil water for coffee. We would be careful to boil more water than we needed for coffee.

After you had poured out the water you needed for coffee, you would remove the icyball from the chest, and upend it, hot ball downward. (The handle had a bracket to support the device in this position.) You would pour a few cups of boiling water over the cold ball. After much gurgling you would carry the device to the water tub, which was about three feet high. First you would immerse the hot ball in the tub for a few seconds, just to fill a small reservoir on the top of the hot ball with water attached to a whistle. You would then reverse the device, hot ball outside and the cold ball in the water, resting the device on the edge of the tank. Then you would tend to the burner.

You would fill the little can with kerosene and screw the lid on. You would then tip the filled can upside down into the waiting burner can, and light the burner, positioning it under the hot ball. (The burner was not adjustable, and had an asbestos wick.) You could then go about your chores for the morning.

Later, when all the kerosene had been consumed, the water in the hot ball reservoir would boil, blowing a whistle to alert you that the burning was done. (Our whistle had been broken years ago, but we could hear the whistle from our neighbour's icyball.)

Then you would switch the position of the hot and cold balls, putting the hot ball in the tub water (hiss!), and in a few minutes the cold ball would be covered in ice, and ready to be returned to the chest for the day. (The cold ball had a hole through it, into which you could put a small metal ice cube tray.)

Once you got used to this routine, the icyball worked beautifully. It was certainly better than burying your food in the ground to try to preserve it.

Operation (Crosley Icyball)

The Crosley Icyball was an example of a gas-absorption refrigerator, as can be found today in recreational vehicles or campervans. Unlike an RV refrigerator, the Icyball was not a continuous cycle, but rather a batch cycle design. The entire refrigeration "mechanism" (not a typical mechanism, because it had no moving parts at all) was removed from the refrigerator cabinet, and regenerated each day.

An understanding of the distinguishing features of absorption refrigeration is needed to understand how the Icy Ball worked:Almost all refrigeration systems rely on the reduction of pressure to cause liquid refrigerant to evaporate. This partial vacuum must be sustained or cooling action will cease. Mechanical refrigeration systems (the most common type) use the suction side of their compressor to provide this partial vacuum. Absorption refrigerators instead use the affinity of a sorbent material (water in this case) to absorb the refrigerant vapor (ammonia in this case). Though probably the most common, this so called "ammonia cycle" is not the only possible sorption refrigeration scheme. It is actually possible to use water as a refrigerant, and e.g. zeolite or glycol as an absorber. In order to maintain refrigeration the absorber must be either periodically (batch systems) or continuously regenerated.

In the simplistic description, the Icyball "mechanism" consists of two hollow balls, with an inverted U shaped pipe connecting them. The chest style cabinet is made so that the U tube passes through a slot in the upper wall, leaving one ball inside (cold side) and the other ball outside. (hot-side) Upon completion of regeneration, the cold-side ball contains liquid ammonia, at near anhydrous (no water content) strength. The hot-side ball contains nearly pure water. The tube between the balls, and the space above the liquid contains mostly ammonia vapor, and a small amount of water vapor. The liquid water in the hot-side ball absorbs the ammonia vapor, lowering the pressure. This causes the liquid ammonia to evaporate. The evaporation of the liquid ammonia provides a powerful cooling effect, lowering the temperature of the cold-side ball to around 19 °F (−7 °C), sufficient to freeze water.

By this action, heat is moved from the cold-side ball to the hot-side ball, warming the hot-side ball. This is undesirable, as the effectiveness of the water as an absorber is reduced with temperature. The hot-side ball was therefore equipped with (somewhat crude) cooling fins, allowing it to be convection cooled by room air.

Eventually all of the ammonia in the cold-side ball evaporates, leaving a near saturated water/ammonia solution in the hot-side ball, which is similar to but stronger than household cleaning ammonia. At this point the refrigerator stops working, and must be regenerated.

Regeneration is accomplished by heating the hot-side ball. The ammonia adsorbing capacity of water is temperature dependent. As the temperature increases, the ammonia desorbs from the water. A second requirement for regeneration is that the cold side ball must be kept reasonably cool, so that the ammonia vapor desorbed from the water will condense into the liquid ammonia needed for refrigeration. This was traditionally accomplished by immersing the cold-side ball in a tub or bucket of water.

The actual construction of the Icyball is slightly more complex than described above. Several features were incorporated to improve the efficiency (bubbling the ammonia vapor through the water) and to minimize the amount of water transferred to the cold-side ball during the regeneration cycle (trapping structures).

Additionally, the cold-side ball had a tube into which a special ice-cube tray could be placed - the forerunner of the "freezing compartment" in more modern refrigerators. A custard was often made and poured into the tray making ice cream when placed into the tube.


While the Crosley Icy ball refrigerator is no longer sold or manufactured, absorption cycle refrigeration is still in use. In addition to RV applications, ammonia cycle refrigerators are still used in undeveloped countries. These are also batch-cycle devices, but incorporate various condensers, check valves, integral kerosene burner, etc, so that the disassembly and tub of water required to regenerate the Icy Ball are no longer needed. Ammonia refrigeration is also used in large industrial applications, where its efficiency more than compensates for the higher initial cost, and associated risk. Though it was once fairly popular for home air conditioning, concerns related to ammonia leakage have caused mechanical refrigeration to dominate that market.


* [http://crosleyautoclub.com/IcyBall/crosley_icyball.html Crosley IcyBall]
* [http://files.asme.org/ASMEORG/Communities/History/Landmarks/5633.pdf#search=%22%22Crosley%20Icy%20Ball%22%22 Refrigeration Research Historic Museum]

ee also

*Einstein refrigerator
*Thermoelectric cooling

External links

* [http://www.refresearch.com/m-icyball.html HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE CROSLEY ICY BALL]
* [http://www.motherearthnews.com/library/1976_January_February/Feedback_on___The_Incredible_Wood_Burning_Refrigerator Mother Earth News]
* [http://www.itdg.org/html/technical_enquiries/docs/refrigeration_for_dev_countries.pdf#search=%22sorption%20refrigeration%22 Refrigeration for developing countries, Intermediate Technology Development Group]
* [http://crosleyautoclub.com/IcyBall/crosley_icyball.html Crosley Auto Club Icyball Page]
* [http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/285 Adam Grosser explains a modern version] video 3.5 minutes

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