Cryogenic Applications

Definitions, examples, and more.

Cryogenic engineering focuses on liquid gases and the cryogenic applications that use them. But what cryogenic applications will we recognize in 2023? Within which industries does cryogenic engineering play a part, and what applications can we expect in the near future? 

In this blog, we will answer the above questions in detail. We briefly discuss cryogenic technology in general, look at the development of cryogenic applications, explain some typical applications and explain how a liquid gas reaches an application starting from its production.

What is cryogenic technology?

Before we discuss cryogenic applications in detail, first, a brief introduction, what exactly is cryogenic technology, and what makes a material or application “cryogenic”?

Cryogenic engineering is the field that deals with extremely low temperatures and the chemical reactions that take place in the process. The focus is on the liquefaction of industrial gases. Around a temperature of -160°C, gases take on a liquid form, and from this temperature and below, are referred to as “cryogenic”. 

A large number of industries use liquefied industrial gases, which are kept liquid using cryogenic technology. Some of the industries that rely significantly on cryogenics include the:

Each of these industries work with specific applications that use different liquid gases at different temperatures. Four liquid gases we typically see within many sectors are: 

  • Liquid nitrogen (with a boiling point of -195.8°C). Liquid nitrogen is widely used in the automotive industry, electronics industry, food industry, medical industry, and pharmaceutical industry, where it is used for the cryogenic cooling of materials. As liquid nitrogen can be extracted from ambient air, it is a relatively environmentally friendly and affordable gas. This makes it a popular gas used by many manufacturers. 
  • Liquid hydrogen (with a boiling point of -252.9°C). As can be read in our blog on liquid hydrogen, this popular gas is widely used as a renewable fuel and energy carrier in, among others, the (road) transportation sector. 
  • LNG, or liquefied natural gas (with a boiling point of -162°C). LNG is a popular fuel widely used in the road transport and marine industries
  • Liquid helium (with a boiling point of -268.9°C). Helium is essential in scientific research and is regularly used in the medical industry.

The very first cryogenic applications

Cryogenic technology does not stand still. There is continuous research into new techniques, applications, and possibilities for the most efficient use of liquid gases. But where did it all begin? What did the first cryogenic applications look like? 

As might be expected, the development of cryogenic applications began with research surrounding the production and storage of liquefied gas. Thus, in 1892, not long after various gases were first liquefied, James Dewar developed his well-known dewar. The dewar is a storage container for extremely cold gases that is still widely used today. 

A few decades later, the focus shifted to the large-scale production of industrial gases. A strong example of an important development in this field was the construction of the first air separation plant for oxygen in 1902. This new technique, discovered by Carl Von Linde, was seen as a major breakthrough in cryogenics. 

As large-scale production of industrial gases took off, cryogenic applications were developed and deployed in various industries. To name a few examples: 

  • Around 1960, liquid nitrogen was first used for food refrigeration on a commercial basis in large-scale freezing systems
  • In 1961, liquid hydrogen and liquid nitrogen were used in the U.S. rocket Atlas Centaur. 
  • During the same period, several developments also took place in the medical field. For example, the first cryoprotectants were used in 1946 and 1959 to cool medical tissue. In 1961, cryosurgery was performed for the first time, and in 1983, the first cryogenic techniques were used for Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).  

The above applications represent only a small selection of all cryogenic applications discovered and developed over the past century. Some have remained, others have been replaced, and new applications are added every year.

An Atlas-Centaur rocket on Pad 36A at Cape Kennedy for a fueling test in preparation for the AC-3 launch in June 1964.
Source: NASA, Glenn Research Center

Cryogenic applications in 2023

In 2023, cryogenic technology will become an indispensable part of a good number of industries. Many manufacturing processes are now dependent on liquid gases, and cryogenic infrastructures are getting both better and more sophisticated. 

Further on in this blog, we will elaborate on some recent discoveries in cryogenics and possible cryogenic applications in the future. First, however, we want to briefly discuss cryogenic applications that will be fully established and widely produced and used by 2023.

Cryogenic applications in the medical and pharmaceutical industry

Two interrelated industries in which cryogenic applications will be widely used in 2023 are the medical and pharmaceutical industries. In both industries, the preservation of tissue in optimal form is vital, whether it be medicines or biological materials.

Cryogenic freezing systems

The cryogenic freezer is one of the oldest and most widely used cryogenic freezing systems in the medical and pharmaceutical industries. In standard cryogenic freezers, liquid nitrogen is injected into the system, creating cold vapors. These vapors envelop the product to be cooled and bring it to the desired low temperature. 

Many substances, such as certain drugs, blood cells, stem cells, and eggs, can be frozen using a “regular” cryogenic freezer or a so-called control rate freezer. However, this does not apply to all substances. Sometimes the preservation of specific components is so important that other techniques are needed. In this case, freeze drying – or lyophilization– may offer the solution. 

Freeze drying is a refrigeration process in which water is removed from a substance after it has been frozen and placed in a vacuum. This process is used to freeze food, pharmaceutical/biopharmaceutical bulk ingredients, proteins, collagen, peptide, oligonucleotide, chemical API, enzymes, and mAbs. 

Storage of materials and cryogenic liquids

Obviously, the medical and pharmaceutical industries use many other cryogenic applications. For example, small biological samples are stored in CRFs and storage containers, where they can be kept for an extended period of time while they remain at optimum quality. This process is called sample storage.

Sample storage takes place in small vials, which are cooled in liquid nitrogen to approximately -135°C. The extreme cold stops virtually all biological activity and theoretically minimizes sample degradation over the long term. 

Finally, within many medical facilities, we also see the aforementioned cryogenic storage dewars and nitrogen filling stations. These stations are placed near a tank in or outside of a building and allow for quick retrieval of several liters of liquid nitrogen for use. 

Cryogenic health treatment with the cryosauna

Before we move on to the food industry, here’s another popular application that is strongly related to the medical sector: the cryosauna. A treatment in this sauna, called cryotherapy, exposes the body to cryogenic temperatures for several minutes for an overall health boost. 

Usually, a cryosauna is cooled with liquid nitrogen vapor or air cooled by electricity. The application looks like a large cabin, with a dewar containing liquid nitrogen next to it (or inside of it).

Cryogenic sample storage
Cryogenic sample storage

Cryogenic applications in the food industry

A second industry that relies intensely on cryogenic applications is the food industry. Cooling food, while it is at its best quality, is crucial within this industry. Cryogenic refrigeration systems have proven to be the ultimate method for this.

Food freezing systems

The tunnel freezer is one of the most widely used freezing systems for rapid, large-scale food freezing. Products enter these large freezing systems on one side and come out the other side completely frozen. 

An advantage of the tunnel freezer is the fact that foods freeze so quickly that their quality remains very high. Nutrients and vitamins in the food remain relatively well preserved. 

How a tunnel freezer exactly works depends on the system and the product to be frozen. However, commonly products are sprayed with liquid nitrogen at -196°C (77 K) to harden the product surface. 

For even better shelf life, freeze-drying is also used for certain food products. As with biological materials, food products also benefit from the optimal preservation of their structure that freeze drying enables. 

A freeze dryer freezes a product, then reduces the pressure and adds heat so that the frozen water in the material instantly vaporizes.

Of course, also, in the food industry, it does not stop with only freezing systems either. Some other cryogenic applications in use at many food producers include cooling trays containing liquid nitrogen as well as the well-known dewars and filling stations. 

Cryogenic cooling trays with liquid nitrogen, into which foods are immersed for super-fast cooling.

Cryogenic applications in the space industry

The space industry not only makes widespread use of cryogenic applications but would look completely different without cryogenic technology. For example, cryogenic gases are used as fuel, and liquid helium is used to cool detectors so that they can take highly accurate measurements in space. 

Cryogenic rocket engines

A cryogenic rocket engine makes use of a cryogenic fuel and oxidizer, usually consisting of liquid oxygen (at -183°C) and liquid hydrogen (at -253°C). This technology was first used in the famous American rocket Atlas-Centaur and contributed significantly to NASA’s success in reaching the moon with the Saturn V rocket.

The cryogenic test chamber

Cryogenic applications are also indispensable in launch preparation. The cryogenic test chamber is an example of a cryogenic application that prepares satellites and rockets for departure. In this chamber, cryogenic temperatures are used to research the extent to which all functions of a satellite or engine remain active under extreme temperature variations.

IISRO Propulsion Complex (IPRC), a rocket engine test facility
IISRO Propulsion Complex (IPRC), a rocket engine test facility

Cryogenic applications in transportation

Perhaps foremost among the industries in which liquid gases are increasingly included in the development of new applications is the transportation sector. 

Mainly hydrogen forms the basis of the current efforts toward sustainability in both road transport and shipping, and there are plenty of hydrogen-powered cars, trucks, and ships in development. 

Some examples of cryogenic applications within the transportation industry include: 

  • Passenger cars with an engine that runs on liquid hydrogen. In 2001, BMW launched the Mini Hydrogen, which is considered one of the first liquid hydrogen-powered cars. Currently, more and more hydrogen cars are emerging on the market, mainly using a hydrogen fuel cell. 
  • The development of trucks with hydrogen fuel cells or tanks for liquid hydrogen. A good example is Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz GenH2 Truck, currently under development. 
  • The use of LNG as a fuel primarily for trucks and cargo ships. LNG (liquid natural gas) is now widely available and is regarded as a fuel that is just a bit more sustainable than common diesel fuel.
  • A refuelling station for LNG or hydrogen. 
Hyundai NEXO, a self-driving car with a hydrogen fuel cell

Cryogenic applications in scientific research

One of the very first industries to experiment with cryogenic techniques, and thus cryogenic applications, is scientific research

By cooling magnets with cryogenic gases to almost absolute zero, they can, depending on the material, be made superconducting, and generate enormous forces with relatively small sizes. And these enormous forces are the subject of extensive research. 

Some examples of cryogenic projects in scientific research include experiments with particle accelerators and large superconductors. At the same time, the effect of extreme temperatures is monitored.

Because it is one of the coldest and most powerful cryogenic gases, liquid helium is often used as a coolant in scientific experiments.

Dozens of industries

Obviously, the above list of industries and applications is far from complete. Other industries in which cryogenic applications are used include the electronics industry, automotive industry, chemical industry, and metal industry

Would you like to know more about these industries and the cryogenic applications in use within these industries? Then read more about the eleven cryogenic industries to which Demaco provides cryogenic services and infrastructures.

The electronics industry uses nitrogen-cooled test chambers for testing computer chips.
The electronics industry uses nitrogen-cooled test chambers for testing computer chips.

The future role of cryogenic applications

Cryogenic applications have undergone tremendous changes over the past century, and research is ongoing. What does the future of cryogenic application look like? What role will cryogenics play in 2023 and beyond? 

Looking at the projects currently under development as well as the mission and vision of major parties in the cryogenic industry, two themes stand out for the near future: further technical development of cryogenic applications and the use of cryogenic techniques to make various industries more sustainable. 

Some new cryogenic applications that we expect to see more and more in the future include:

  • New cryogenic applications in the medical industry, such as open MRI devices, magnetoencephalography based on SQUID detectors to map the brain’s response to stimuli, and compact accelerators for proton therapy, are helpful in some cancer treatments.
  • The further development and scale-up of hydrogen-powered road transport. Hydrogen-powered passenger cars will be made more accessible, hydrogen-powered freight transport is expected to take off, and work is underway on combustion engines running on liquid hydrogen.
  • The development of sustainable aircraft engines based on cryogenic techniques. Several aircraft are currently under development with lightweight, superconducting engines, and the prototypes are expected to be produced by 2030.

Energy transportation using liquid hydrogen. As we move more and more to renewable energy worldwide, it becomes essential to transport this energy internationally. After all, not every country has equal access to solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources. Converting this energy into liquid hydrogen using electrolyzers makes it significantly easier to transport it over long distances.

A mock-up of the ASuMED engine: a superconducting aircraft engine co-developed by Demaco.
A mock-up of the ASuMED engine: a superconducting aircraft engine co-developed by Demaco.

How liquid gas reaches the cryogenic application

A cryogenic application is nothing without a cryogenic liquid. But how does a liquid gas reach the application? How is the extremely cold liquid produced and transported, and how is the supply to the application managed?

From Production to Transportation and Storage

Industrial gases, such as nitrogen, oxygen, helium, and hydrogen, are produced in gaseous form. How this works depends on the type of gas. For example, hydrogen is produced by steam methane reforming or electrolysis. Helium, oxygen, and nitrogen are produced in air-separation plants. 

After production, the gases are stored in gaseous form or liquefied with a so-called liquefier for more efficient storage and transportation. This is because gases take up less space in liquid form than in gaseous form, and this makes storage and transport in a liquefied form much more efficient. 

The liquid is then transported to the end user in a cryogenic tank by ship or truck.

From storage tank to application

Most users of cryogenic gases have a bulk tank on site, which stores the liquid in optimum insulation. This tank is refilled as required and supplies cryogenic applications with an adequate liquid gas supply. 

But how does the liquid from this tank reach the application(s)? This is where cryogenic infrastructures are indispensable. In most cases, cryogenic liquids are stored several dozen meters from a storage tank (often outside a building) from an application (inside a building). It is essential that the liquid reaches the application at the proper pressure and the right temperature. 

Most sites install a network of vacuum-insulated transfer lines to maintain the highest quality of the gas, supplemented by quality-enhancing products such as a phase separator, degasser, or gas-vent valve. Also, as we mentioned earlier, some tanks are equipped with a nitrogen filling station, allowing users to carry small amounts of nitrogen to their workstations. 

Vacuum insulation

A cryogenic piping system must be technically perfect. The best insulation is essential for the safe transport of cryogenic gases, which is why vacuum insulation is used in most cases. 

Vacuum-insulated transfer lines contain a process line that is all around enclosed by a vacuum chamber, by which a high-grade insulating vacuum is guaranteed. The insulating vacuum prevents the penetration of energy from outside and ensures that evaporation is reduced to a minimum.

Would you like to learn more about the best insulation for cryogenic infrastructures? Then please read our page on vacuum technology

Cross-section of a vacuum-insulated transfer line (VIP).
Cross-section of a vacuum-insulated transfer line (VIP).

How Demaco enhances cryogenic applications to function optimally

This blog unambiguously indicates that cryogenic technology is highly versatile. Cryogenic fluids are used within dozens of industries and come in endless varieties. And this is precisely what makes the cryogenic engineering profession both complicated and exciting. 

Demaco has been at the forefront of the cryogenic industry for decades. Our team of cryogenic engineers is involved in a wide variety of industries. Demaco provides complete infrastructures that ensure cryogenic gases are routed in perfect condition from the storage tank to the application. 

We advise, on design, build, manufacture and supply; we assemble, supervise, and certify piping, systems, and vacuum-insulated components. We also provide various vacuum-insulated products from our Webshop Vacuum

For more information about our work, check out our products and services pages, or reach out to us with any questions or for a free consultation.

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