A Refrigerator that Runs Without Electricity

Mohammed Bah Abba
Sometimes there are simple solutions to universal needs that don't require coal fired electricity, fossil fuels, or even solar panels or wind turbines.

Around a third of the world's population have no access to electricity. If you're like me, you've spent your entire life being able to plug in. Do we ever give a thought to what life would be like if the various appliances we've come to rely on were to suddenly stop working? One of the most energy guzzling appliances in our carbon footprint portfolio is the refrigerator. But, unplug it, and the quality of your life will suddenly deteriorate. Take that thought, and imagine living in a hot dry country in Africa, without electricity, where food quickly wilts and rots in the sun, aided by onslaughts of flies.

One modern day genius, mindful of this basic need to preserve food, has solved the problem for many. Mohammed Bah Abba, a Nigerian teacher, invented the 'device' -- a refrigerator that doesn't require electricity!

From a family of pot-makers, Mohammed has made ingeniously simple use of the laws of thermodynamics to create the pot-in-pot refrigerator, called a Zeer in Arabic.

Here's how it works.

You take two earthen pots, both being the same shape but different sizes, and put one within the other. Then, fill the space between the two pots with sand before pouring water into the same cavity to make the sand wet. Then, place food items into the inner pot, and cover with a lid or damp cloth. You only need to ensure the pot-in-pot refrigerator is kept in a dry, well-ventilated space; the laws of thermodynamics does the rest. As the moisture in the sand evaporates, it draws heat away from the inner pot, cooling its contents. The only maintenance required is the addition of more water, around twice a day.

To give an idea of its performance, spinach that would normally wilt within hours in the African heat will last around twelve days in the pot, and items like tomatoes and peppers that normally struggle to survive a few days, now last three weeks. Aubergines (eggplants) get a life extension from just a few days to almost a month.

Inventing the refrigerator in 1995, Mohammed distributed thousands around Nigerian communities during the late 1990s (initially for free to get the word out, then later at just production-cost price), and subsequently won the Rolex Award for Enterprise in the year 2000. It has improved the lives and health of thousands. Less work can translate into more education for children, and small farmers who were before losing large proportions of their harvest are now able to earn a better income. Another knock-on benefit is improved health due to better preservation of vitamins, as well as a reduction in health problems like dysentery due to the separation of food and flies.

It seems that not all of the answers to life's needs have to come with a plug and instruction book.

Further Reading:

11 comments

If you see any unhelpful comments, please let us know immediately.

tanyaradzwa (anonymous)

l would like to know if these refregirators that does not require electricty can perform the same as the ones that uses electricty as deep freezers

Written in March 2010

Jim Lebeau (anonymous)

A deep freeze needs more power. The cooling of the pot in pot refrigerator comes from the evaporation of the water, which happens because the air is very dry. In a hot humid climate, these devices will not work.

Written in May 2011

Brent (anonymous)

I saw something like this on the documentary "No impact Man". It didnt work.

Written in May 2011

Duff (anonymous)

This is more like a root cellar than a refrigerator... great idea. This wouldn't keep beer cold enough, but its great for veggies.

Written in May 2011

Frank (anonymous)

This double pot evaporation system is not new, it's ancient. Market photos from the 19th C clearly show the double pot cooler throughout the world. It works especially well in hot dry climates where you can have extensive evaporation. It doesn't work in humid or cold climates. What's needed in North America is a return to the root cellar, and external cold sheds or window boxes for climates that fall below freezing. Again this is not new technology, but was widespread in the 19c.

Written in May 2011

Jack (anonymous)

None of these "low tech" devices really work, and the zeer pot is a very old idea. It doesn't work in humidity.
Look, modern devices are essential to modern life. They will, and must, become more efficient, for example LED lighting, and magnetic refrigeration. And our use of them must become more efficient and responsible - don't use a double-door sub-zero for a single guy to keep a lettuce, a carrot and a few beers cool.
But these "let's all go back to low tech" idealists really need to experience a low-tech existence (and get sick while doing it) to understand that it's something to endure, not aspire to.

Written in May 2011

Archwright (anonymous)

@ the "it doesn't work" crowd

The device does work. It works in the environment it was designed to work in. It is not terribly safe, it's capacity is low, it cannot hold food indefinitely. However, it does keep the environment cooler than ambient, and preserve food.

Can't you just be happy for the farmers who are taking some steps towards modernity?

Written in June 2011

kim (anonymous)

There is very good idea in nigeria. may i know his contact ?

Written in July 2011

Terrie (anonymous)

A company called Frio makes a similar cooling device for medicine. Search Amazon.

Written in July 2011

shubham singh (anonymous)

good

Written in August 2011

Engr.Joe Okeke (anonymous)

I'm thankful to God for the invention.I've designed my own and used salt on fresh meat/fish and both stayed for 60 days fresh.Now I designed for commercial purpose to be used for keeping vacine/fresh meat/fish and every other fresh agro products.
i'm italian trained Ceramic engineer by profession.I'm ready to assist Prof.Mohammed Aba Nabba transfer the technology to all rural people Worldwide.

Written in December 2011

Add a comment
  • to get your picture next to your comment (not a member yet?).
  • Posted on April 4, 2008. Listed in:

    See other articles written by Craig »

    11 comments

    Pledge to do these related actions

    Energize your Composter, 196°

    Composters and compost piles often become places of ill-repute, where food wastes rot instead of ...

    Ride an electric bicycle, everywhere, 31°

    Electric bicycles are widely available and an extremely low power low impact way to move ...

    Veggie Garden, 301°

    Cleared a large swathe of overgrown mess at the end of the garden and put ...

    Featured Companies & Orgs