Science and Technology News

Monday, April 23, 2012

Keeping Cool: Cryogenics And The Military

Story written by Airman 1st Class Zachary Perras

The word “cryogenic” is derived from the Greek words kruos, for frost, and genos, for origin of creation. In essence, cryogenics  is the technology and art behind producing low temperatures. Here at Eielson, that art is imperative to the flying mission.

As the dedicated cryogenics expert at Eielson, Staff Sgt. Dustin Volpi knows how the process should function, how to handle and manage liquid nitrogen and oxygen and how to maintain operational readiness for Eielson’s fliers.

“We keep the mission going,” said Volpi, 354th Logistics Readiness Squadron  fuels distribution superviser. “Without us, the planes don’t fly. That’s what we do.”

In cryogenics, there is liquid oxygen, primarily used as aviator breathing oxygen, and liquid nitrogen, used to service the emergency power unit, the emergency source of electrical and hydraulic power in the event the onboard generators or engine fails on the F-16 Fighting Falcon . Cryogenics is a heavily inclusive part of the flying mission because of this, Volpi said.

However, cryogenics here is quite different from any other base. When temperatures drop to 50 below zero, limitations arise, affecting the capabilities and how quickly a task can be finished. On top of this, frostbite can easily occur. Since liquid nitrogen boils at minus 321 degrees Fahrenheit and liquid oxygen boils at minus 297 degrees Fahrenheit, the potential for danger rises.

“You can only stay out there for so long because it’s so cold,” Volpi said. “It’s even colder standing by the equipment because the cryogenics are so cold. If you add the environment from the gases boiling off, it gets cold really quick.”
 Volpi works with two gases that have been cooled and compressed into a liquid. Just like anything else that has been compressed and sealed, accidents can happen should procedures be overlooked.

“I’ve always tried to keep a real sharp eye and stay one step ahead,” said Volpi. “When things do go wrong in cryogenics, generally it’s not, ‘That was a close call.’ People get injured. If you don’t check the hoses well for deterioration, they could explode. There are no rubber pieces on the hoses – it’s all braided metal and aluminum and it’s all wrapped together to form a tight seal. So when they burst, it sends shrapnel everywhere.”

While cryogenics may seem like a hazardous career field, Volpi has found an admiration for what he works with every day.

“You have to have a healthy respect for the product,” Volpi said. “You always have an inherent danger. Liquid oxygen is combustible and liquid nitrogen displaces oxygen, so there’s the risk of asphyxiation. As long as you’re aware of the dangers and you do what you’re supposed to do, you mitigate those dangers to a very minimal level.”

Despite these risks and the cold environment, Volpi enjoys what he does. Cryogenics has been part of his life for nearly 10 years, making it more than just work.

“It’s a fun job,” he said. “You get to work with stuff that nobody else in the Air Force does. Even though there is no real way to compensate for the cold, it’s part of your job – so you just deal with it and press at it.”

Regardless of how dangerous cryogenics is, Volpi and his team constantly work to provide the necessary means for the F-16s. After all, Eielson’s flying mission largely depends on a functioning cryogenics shop – a shop which Volpi is proud to lead.

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