What is Cryogenic Temperature?

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Jun 28, 2024

Cryogenic temperature refers to extremely low temperatures, typically below 120 Kelvin (-153.15°C), where materials exhibit unique physical properties that are not observed at higher temperatures. These properties include superconductivity, where certain materials conduct electricity without resistance; superfluidity, where fluids flow without viscosity; and significant changes in mechanical and electrical properties of materials. The study and application of cryogenic temperatures are essential in various scientific, medical, and industrial fields. For instance, in the medical field, cryogenic temperatures are utilized in MRI machines to cool superconducting magnets, which are crucial for producing high-quality imaging used in diagnostics. For space exploration, instruments aboard satellites and spacecraft often depend up on cryogenic cooling to maintain the functionality and sensitivity of infrared sensors and detectors, ensuring accurate data collection in the harsh conditions of space. Cryogenic temperatures are vital for experiments conducted in research facilities and the low temperatures are necessary to maintain the superconducting states of magnets used in particle accelerators, enabling the acceleration of particles to high energies required for advanced research. The industrial sector also benefits from cryogenic technology through applications in gas liquefaction processes and the preservation of biological samples that require extremely low temperatures for long-term storage.

Principle of Cryogenic Temperature

Definition and Range

Cryogenic temperatures are defined as temperatures below 120 Kelvin (-153.15°C). These temperatures are achieved using specialized cooling techniques and equipment, such as cryocoolers, liquid helium, or liquid nitrogen. The low temperatures are essential in various scientific and industrial applications due to the unique physical properties’ materials exhibit at these temperatures, such as superconductivity and superfluidity. The exact threshold for cryogenic temperatures can vary depending on the context and the materials involved. Typically, cryogenic temperatures are within the range where gases condense into liquids and where quantum mechanical effects become significant.

Achieving Cryogenic Temperatures

Achieving cryogenic temperatures involves several key methods and principles:

  • Adiabatic Expansion: Adiabatic expansion occurs when a gas expands without exchanging heat with its surroundings, causing its temperature to drop. This principle is used in devices like Joule-Thomson coolers and turboexpanders. In a Joule-Thomson cooler, high-pressure gas expands through a valve or porous plug, reducing its temperature as it does work on the surrounding environment. Turboexpanders use mechanical work extraction during gas expansion to achieve cooling.
  • Evaporative Cooling: Evaporative cooling involves reducing the temperature of a liquid by allowing it to evaporate. As molecules leave the liquid phase, they carry away thermal energy, lowering the temperature of the remaining liquid. This technique is commonly used with liquid helium to reach temperatures near absolute zero. In systems where liquid helium is used, the evaporative cooling process can achieve temperatures below 1 Kelvin, necessary for many low-temperature physics experiments.
  • Magnetic Refrigeration: Magnetic refrigeration is based on the magnetocaloric effect, which involves changing the magnetic field around a material, causing it to heat up or cool down. When the magnetic field is applied, the magnetic moments of the material align, increasing the material’s temperature. Removing the magnetic field causes the moments to disorder, resulting in cooling. By cycling the magnetic field, temperatures can be lowered significantly, making it possible to reach cryogenic levels. This method is particularly effective at achieving temperatures below 10 Kelvin and is used in advanced scientific research and some specialized industrial applications.
  • Cryocoolers: Cryocoolers, including Stirling and pulse tube cryocoolers, utilize thermodynamic cycles to achieve and maintain cryogenic temperatures. These devices work by compressing and expanding a working gas, such as helium, in a closed cycle to produce continuous cooling. Stirling Cryocoolers uses a regenerative process with a piston mechanism to compress and expand the gas. The gas absorbs heat from the environment during expansion and releases it during compression. Pulse Tube Cryocoolers operates similarly to Stirling cryocoolers but use a pulse tube instead of a mechanical displacer. The gas oscillates within the tube, undergoing compression and expansion cycles to achieve cooling.

Calculation of Cryogenic Temperature

Determining cryogenic temperatures involves understanding the principles and applying specific calculations to reach and maintain extremely low temperatures. Below is a detailed explanation and calculation method using the Joule-Thomson effect and evaporative cooling as examples.

Joule-Thomson Effect

The Joule-Thomson effect describes the temperature change in a real gas when it is allowed to expand without performing external work and without exchanging heat with its surroundings. The effect can be used to achieve cryogenic temperatures in gases like helium.



  • Δ𝑇: Change in temperature (K)
  • πœ‡JT: Joule-Thomson coefficient (K/Pa)
  • Δ𝑃: Change in pressure (Pa)


  1. Identify the initial pressure (𝑃1) and final pressure (𝑃2) of the gas.
  2. Determine the Joule-Thomson coefficient (πœ‡JT) for the gas at the initial temperature and pressure.
  3. Calculate the change in pressure (Δ𝑃 = 𝑃1 – π‘ƒ2).
  4. Calculate the change in temperature (Δ𝑇) using the formula above.

For example, consider helium gas with an initial pressure of 1.5 MPa and a final pressure of 0.1 MPa. The Joule-Thomson coefficient for helium at room temperature is approximately -0.05 K/Pa.


Therefore, if the initial temperature of helium is 300 K, the final temperature after expansion would be:

This method can be repeated in stages to achieve progressively lower temperatures.

Evaporative Cooling

Evaporative cooling is another method used to achieve cryogenic temperatures, particularly in liquid helium.



  • Q: Heat absorbed (J)
  • m: Mass of the evaporating liquid (kg)
  • L: Latent heat of vaporization (J/kg)


  1. Determine the mass (π‘š) of the liquid helium.
  2. Find the latent heat of vaporization (𝐿) for helium.
  3. Calculate the heat absorbed (𝑄) during evaporation.

For liquid helium, the latent heat of vaporization L is approximately 20.7 kJ/kg. Assume we have 1 kg of liquid helium.


This amount of heat removed during the evaporation of 1 kg of liquid helium results in a significant temperature drop, facilitating the achievement of cryogenic temperatures.

Combining Methods

In practical applications, both methods (Joule-Thomson effect and evaporative cooling) can be combined to reach cryogenic temperatures. Initial cooling can be done using the Joule-Thomson effect, followed by further temperature reduction through evaporative cooling of the resulting liquid helium. By applying the principles of the Joule-Thomson effect and evaporative cooling, cryogenic temperatures can be calculated and achieved. These methods, used in tandem, enable precise control overreaching extremely low temperatures necessary for various scientific and industrial applications. Understanding and applying these calculations ensure the effective operation and optimization of cryogenic systems.

Key Concepts and Effects at Cryogenic Temperatures

Cryogenic temperatures, typically defined as below 120 Kelvin (-153.15°C), reveal unique physical properties in materials that are not observable at higher temperatures. These properties are crucial for a range of scientific, medical, and industrial applications.

  • Superconductivity: Superconductivity is a quantum mechanical phenomenon in which specific materials exhibit zero electrical resistance and expel magnetic fields when cooled below a critical temperature. At cryogenic temperatures, these materials can conduct electricity with no energy loss, demonstrating zero electrical resistance. This property is crucial for applications like MRI machines, quantum computing, and high-field magnets. In a superconducting state, electrons form Cooper pairs, which move through the lattice structure of the material without scattering, leading to zero electrical resistance. This phenomenon is explained by the BCS (Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer) theory, which describes the formation of Cooper pairs and their role in superconductivity.
  • Superfluidity: Some fluids, like helium-4, become superfluid at cryogenic temperatures, exhibiting zero viscosity and the ability to flow without friction. This phenomenon is of great interest in fundamental physics and has potential applications in advanced cooling systems. At extremely low temperatures, quantum mechanical effects dominate the behaviour of materials. These effects include quantized energy levels, wavefunction coherence, and tunnelling, which are essential for understanding and developing technologies like quantum sensors and quantum computers. At temperatures below 2.17 Kelvin (the lambda point), helium-4 atoms condense into a single quantum state, allowing them to flow without resistance. This state is described by the Bose-Einstein condensation theory, where a macroscopic number of particles occupy the lowest quantum state. Superfluidity provides insights into quantum mechanical phenomena and is used to study quantum turbulence, vortex dynamics, and macroscopic quantum effects. Superfluid helium is used in cooling systems for extremely sensitive instruments and experiments requiring ultra-low temperatures, such as in particle physics and space telescopes.
  • Quantum Mechanical Effects: At cryogenic temperatures, the thermal energy of particles is significantly reduced, allowing quantum mechanical effects to dominate their behavior. These effects are critical for understanding the fundamental nature of matter and developing advanced technologies. At low temperatures, particles can only occupy discrete energy levels, leading to phenomena such as quantum oscillations and the quantum Hall effect. Quantum coherence becomes more pronounced, allowing particles to exhibit wave-like properties over macroscopic distances, essential for phenomena like superconductivity and superfluidity. Particles can tunnel through energy barriers that would be insurmountable at higher temperatures, a principle utilized in tunnelling diodes and quantum computing.

Applications of Cryogenic Temperatures

  • Medical Applications: In Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines, cryogenic cooling is used to maintain the superconducting state of the magnets, ensuring high-quality imaging. Superconducting magnets are essential for creating the strong, stable magnetic fields required in MRI machines, enabling high-resolution imaging of the human body.
  • Scientific Research: Cryogenic temperatures are used in particle physics experiments, material science studies, and low-temperature physics research. Understanding quantum effects at cryogenic temperatures helps in developing new materials with unique properties, such as topological insulators and exotic superconductors.
  • Space Exploration: Cryogenic cooling is vital for maintaining the functionality and sensitivity of infrared sensors and detectors on satellites and spacecraft. The exploration of cryogenic temperatures for space and satellite-based application enables advancements for understanding of the fundamental principles governing the system.
  • Industrial Processes: Cryogenic temperatures are employed in gas liquefaction processes and the preservation of biological samples requiring extremely low temperatures for long-term storage.
  • Quantum Computing: Quantum mechanical effects, including superposition and entanglement, are the foundation of quantum computers, which provide to advanced computing by solving problems intractable for computers. The quantum mechanical properties of superconductors are fundamental in developing quantum computers that can perform complex computations much faster.
  • High-Field Magnets: Superconductors are used to create powerful magnets for applications in particle accelerators, magnetic levitation, and magnetic resonance spectroscopy.
  • Quantum Sensors: Devices that leverage quantum mechanical effects, such as superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUIDs), provide extremely sensitive measurements of magnetic fields, temperature, and other physical properties.

Cryogenic temperatures are basically the use of extreme cold where unique physical phenomena occur for advancements in science and technology. The principles and methods used to achieve these temperatures, such as adiabatic expansion, evaporative cooling, magnetic refrigeration, and cryocoolers, are critical for applications in medical imaging, space exploration, and fundamental research. Understanding and utilizing the properties of materials at cryogenic temperatures are crucial in field of cryogenics in modern science. The ability to achieve and maintain cryogenic temperatures has enabled significant advancements in technology and science innovations.

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