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Freon
By Mary Bellis

Refrigerators from the late 1800s until 1929 used the toxic gases, ammonia (NH3), methyl chloride (CH3Cl), and sulfur dioxide (SO2), as refrigerants. Several fatal accidents occurred in the 1920s because of methyl chloride leakage from refrigerators. People started leaving their refrigerators in their backyards. A collaborative effort began between three American corporations, Frigidaire, General Motors and DuPont to search for a less dangerous method of refrigeration.

In 1928, Thomas Midgley, Jr. aided by Charles Franklin Kettering invented a "miracle compound" called Freon. Freon represents several different chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which are used in commerce and industry. The CFCs are a group of aliphatic organic compounds containing the elements carbon and fluorine, and, in many cases, other halogens (especially chlorine) and hydrogen. Freons are colorless, odorless, nonflammable, noncorrosive gases or liquids.

Side Note: Charles Franklin Kettering invented the first electric automobile ignition system. He was also the vice-president of the General Motors Research Corporation from 1920 to 1948. General Motors' scientist, Thomas Midgley invented leaded (ethyl) gasoline.

Thomas Midgley was chosen by Charles Franklin Kettering to head the research into the new refrigerants. Frigidaire was issued the first patent, US#1,886,339, for the formula for CFCs on December 31, 1928.

In 1930, General Motors and DuPont formed the Kinetic Chemical Company to produce Freon. By 1935, Frigidaire and its competitors had sold 8 million new refrigerators in the United States using Freon made by the Kinetic Chemical Company. In 1932, the Carrier Engineering Corporation used Freon in the world's first self-contained home air conditioning unit, called an "Atmospheric Cabinet".

Side Note: The trade name Freon ® is a registered trademark belonging to E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company (DuPont).

Because Freon is non-toxic, it eliminated the danger posed by refrigerator leaks. In just a few years, compressor refrigerators using Freon would become the standard for almost all home kitchens. In 1930, Thomas Midgley held a demonstration of the physical properties of Freon for the American Chemical Society by inhaling a lung-full of the new wonder gas and breathing it out onto a candle flame, which was extinguished, thus showing the gas's non-toxicity and non-flammable properties. Only decades later did people realize that such chlorofluorocarbons endangered the ozone layer of the entire planet.

Side Note: CFCs, or Freon, are now infamous for greatly adding to the depletion of the earth's ozone shield. Leaded gasoline is also a major pollutant, and Thomas Midgley secretly suffered from lead poisoning because of his invention, a fact he kept hidden from the public.

Thomas Midgley discoveries ranged from a way of getting salt into popcorn before it was popped, to a method for treating the contents of a swimming pool so that people could swim farther underwater.

  • Definition of Freon
  • Charles Franklin Kettering
  • The History of the Refrigerator
  • Air Conditioning
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