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The History of Cryogenics


Cryogenics, as we recognise it today, started in the late 1800's when Sir James Dewar (1842 – 1923) perfected a technique for compressing and storage of gases from the atmosphere into liquids. (Some credit a couple of Belgians as being first to separate and liquefy gasses but being British we’ll stay with Sir James Dewar for now). These compressed gases were super cold and any metal that came in contact with the ultra low temperatures showed some interesting changes in their characteristics.


The first liquefied hydrogen by Sir James Dewar was in 1898 and a year later he managed to solidify hydrogen – just think on that for a moment… This is before electricity was common in houses, cars and buses a rare find and photography a rich mans hobby. By pure persistence and fantastic mental ability a whole generation of ‘Gentleman Scientists’ managed to bring into existence many things we both rely on and take for granted today.


Sir James Dewar managed to study, and lay the corner stones for the production of a wide range of gases that we use in our everyday lives, mostly without even realising it. He also invented the Thermos flask (how else was he to save his liquid gas samples), the industrial version of which still uses his name - ‘Dewar’.


Before we leave Sir James Dewar, his achievements deserve a mention...
With Sir Frederick Abel, he invented ‘smokeless gunpowder’ or Cordite (1889).
He also Discovered the Formula for Benzene (1867).


Back in the 1940’s scientists discovered that by immersing some metals in liquid nitrogen they could increase the ware resistance of motor parts, particularly in aircraft engines, giving a longer in service life. At the time this was little more than dipping a part into a flask of liquid nitrogen, leaving there for an hour or two and then letting it return to room temperature. They managed to get the hardness they wanted but parts became brittle. As some benefits could be found in this crude method, further research into the process was conducted. The applications at this stage were mostly military.


NASA led the way and perfected a method to gain the best results, consistently, for a whole range of metals. The performance increase in parts was significant but so was the cost of performing the process.


Work continued over the years to perfect the process, insulation materials improved, the method of moving the gas around the process developed and most importantly the ability to tightly control the rate of temperature change.


Technology enabled scientists to look deeper into the very structure of metals and better understand what was happening to the atoms and how they bond with other carbons. They also started to better understand the role that temperature plays in the treatment of metals to effect the final characteristics (more information in the ‘About The Process’ section).


As with most everything in our lives today, the microprocessor enabled a steady but continual reduction in size of the control equipment required as well as increasing the accuracy of that part of the process.


It is only since the mid 1990’s that the process has started to become a commercially viable treatment in terms of ‘cost of process Vs benefits in performance’