In physics, cryogenics is the study of the production of very low temperature (below −150 °C, −238 °F or 123 K) and the behavior of materials at those temperatures. A person who studies elements under extremely cold temperature is called a cryogenicist. Rather than the relative temperature scales of Celsius and Fahrenheit, cryogenicists use the absolute temperature scales. These are Kelvin (SI units) or Rankine scale (Imperial & US units).


Definitions and distinctions

The branches of physics and engineering that involve the study of very low temperatures, how to produce them, and how materials behave at those temperatures.
The branch of biology involving the study of the effects of low temperatures on organisms (most often for the purpose of achieving cryopreservation).
The branch of surgery applying very low temperatures (down to -196 °C) to destruct malignant tissue, e.g. cancer cells.
The emerging medical technology of cryopreserving humans and animals with the intention of future revival. Researchers in the field seek to apply the results of many sciences, including cryobiology, cryogenics, rheology, emergency medicine, etc.
The field of research regarding superconductivity at low temperatures.
The practical application of cryoelectronics.


The word cryogenics stems from Greek and means "the production of freezing cold"; however the term is used today as a synonym for the low-temperature state. It is not well-defined at what point on the temperature scale refrigeration ends and cryogenics begins, but most scientists[1] assume it starts at or below -150 °C or 123 K (about -240 °F). The National Institute of Standards and Technology at Boulder, Colorado has chosen to consider the field of cryogenics as that involving temperatures below −180 °C (93.15 K). This is a logical dividing line, since the normal boiling points of the so-called permanent gases (such as helium, hydrogen, neon, nitrogen, oxygen, and normal air) lie below −180 °C while the Freon refrigerants, hydrogen sulfide, and other common refrigerants have boiling points above −180 °C.

Industrial application

Cryogenic valve

Liquefied gases, such as liquid nitrogen and liquid helium, are used in many cryogenic applications. Liquid nitrogen is the most commonly used element in cryogenics and is legally purchasable around the world. Liquid helium is also commonly used and allows for the lowest attainable temperatures to be reached.

These liquids are held in either special containers known as Dewar flasks, which are generally about six feet tall (1.8 m) and three feet (91.5 cm) in diameter, or giant tanks in larger commercial operations. Dewar flasks are named after their inventor, James Dewar, the man who first liquefied hydrogen. Museums typically display smaller vacuum flasks fitted in a protective casing.

Cryogenic transfer pumps are the pumps used on LNG piers to transfer Liquefied Natural Gas from LNG Carriers to LNG storage tanks, as are cryogenic valves.

Cryogenic processing

The field of cryogenics advanced during World War II when scientists found that metals frozen to low temperatures showed more resistance to wear. Based on this theory of cryogenic hardening, the commercial cryogenic processing industry was founded in 1966 by Ed Busch. With a background in the heat treating industry, Busch founded a company in Detroit called CryoTech in 1966. Though CryoTech later merged with 300 Below to create the largest and oldest commercial cryogenics company in the world, they originally experimented with the possibility of increasing the life of metal tools to anywhere between 200%-400% of the original life expectancy using cryogenic tempering instead of heat treating. This evolved in the late 1990s into the treatment of other parts (that did more than just increase the life of a product) such as amplifier valves (improved sound quality), baseball bats (greater sweet spot), golf clubs (greater sweet spot), racing engines (greater performance under stress), firearms (less warping after continuous shooting), knives, razor blades, brake rotors and even pantyhose. The theory was based on how heat-treating metal works (the temperatures are lowered to room temperature from a high degree causing certain strength increases in the molecular structure to occur) and supposed that continuing the descent would allow for further strength increases. Using liquid nitrogen, CryoTech formulated the first early version of the cryogenic processor. Unfortunately for the newly born industry, the results were unstable, as components sometimes experienced thermal shock when they were cooled too quickly. Some components in early tests even shattered because of the ultra-low temperatures. In the late twentieth century, the field improved significantly with the rise of applied research, which coupled microprocessor based industrial controls to the cryogenic processor in order to create more stable results.

Cryogens, like liquid nitrogen, are further used for specialty chilling and freezing applications. Some chemical reactions, like those used to produce the active ingredients for the popular statin drugs, must occur at low temperatures of approximately −100 °C. Special cryogenic chemical reactors are used to remove reaction heat and provide a low temperature environment. The freezing of foods and biotechnology products, like vaccines, requires nitrogen in blast freezing or immersion freezing systems. Certain soft or elastic materials become hard and brittle at very low temperatures, which makes cryogenic milling (cryomilling) an option for some materials that cannot easily be milled at higher temperatures.

Cryogenic processing is not a substitute for heat treatment, but rather an extension of the heating - quenching - tempering cycle. Normally, when an item is quenched, the final temperature is ambient. The only reason for this is that most heat treaters do not have cooling equipment. There is nothing metallurgically significant about ambient temperature. The cryogenic process continues this action from ambient temperature down to −320 °F (140 °R; 78 K; −196 °C). In most instances the cryogenic cycle is followed by a heat tempering procedure. As all alloys do not have the same chemical constituents, the tempering procedure varies according to the material's chemical composition, thermal history and/or a tool's particular service application.

The entire process takes 3–4 days.


Another use of cryogenics is cryogenic fuels. Cryogenic fuels, mainly liquid hydrogen, have been used as rocket fuels. Liquid oxygen is used as an oxidizer of hydrogen, but oxygen is not, strictly speaking, a fuel. For example, NASA's workhorse space shuttle uses cryogenic hydrogen fuel as its primary means of getting into orbit, as did all of the rockets built for the Soviet space program by Sergei Korolev.

Russian aircraft manufacturer Tupolev developed a version of its popular design Tu-154 with a cryogenic fuel system, known as the Tu-155. The plane uses a fuel referred to as liquefied natural gas or LNG, and made its first flight in 1989.


Some applications of cryogenics:

  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
    MRI is a method of imaging objects that uses a strong magnetic field to detect the relaxation of protons that have been perturbed by a radio-frequency pulse. This magnetic field is generated by electromagnets, and high field strengths can be achieved by using superconducting magnets. Traditionally, liquid helium is used to cool the coils because it has a boiling point of around 4 K at ambient pressure, and cheap metallic superconductors can be used for the coil wiring. So-called high-temperature superconducting compounds can be made to superconduct with the use of liquid nitrogen which boils at around 77 K.
  • Electric power transmission in big cities
    It is difficult to transmit power by overhead cables in big cities, so underground cables are used. But underground cables get heated and the resistance of the wire increases leading to wastage of power. This can be solved by cryogenics. Liquefied gases are sprayed on the cables to keep them cool and reduce their resistance[citation needed].
  • Frozen food
    Cryogenic gases are used in transportation of large masses of frozen food. When very large quantities of food must be transported to regions like war fields, earthquake hit regions, etc., they must be stored for a long time, so cryogenic food freezing is used. Cryogenic food freezing is also helpful for large scale food processing industries.
  • Blood banking
    Certain blood groups which are rare are stored at low temperatures, such as -165 degrees C.


Cryogenic cooling of devices and material is usually achieved via the use of liquid nitrogen, liquid helium, or a cryocompressor (which uses high pressure helium lines). Newer devices such as pulse cryocoolers and Stirling cryocoolers have been devised. The most recent development in cryogenics is the use of magnets as regenerators as well as refrigerators. These devices work on the principle known as the magnetocaloric effect.


Cryogenic temperatures, usually well below 77 K (−196 °C) are required to operate cryogenic detectors.

See also


Further reading

  • Haselden, G. G. (1971) Cryogenic fundamentals Academic Press, New York, ISBN 0-12-330550-0

External links

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