Cryogenic Instrumentation

Even though the combined production of cryogenic nitrogen and oxygen exceeds the production of any other chemical in the United States, the cryogenic industry does not appear to warrant a separate product line of instruments for diagnostic and control purposes. Low-temperature thermometry is the one exception. The general approach generally is that instruments developed for the usual CPI needs must be modified or accepted as is for cryogenic use.

Quite often problems arise when instruments for normal service are subjected to low temperature use. Since some metals become brittle at low temperatures, the instrument literally falls apart. Elastomeric gaskets and seals contract faster with decreasing temperatures than the surrounding metal parts, and the seal often is lost. Even hermetically sealed instruments can develop pin holes or small cracks to permit cryogenic liquids to enter these cases with time. Warming the instrument causes the trapped liquid to vaporize, sometimes generating excessive gas pressure and failure of the case.

Therefore, the first task in adapting normal instruments to cryogenic service is simply to give them a severe thermal shock by immersing them in liquid nitrogen repeatedly, and checking for mechanical integrity. This is the general issue; specific issues according to each type of measurement are discussed below.

Pressure This parameter is usually measured by the flush-mounted pressure transducer which consists of a force-summing device (bellow, diaphragm, bourdon tube, etc.) that translates the pressure into a displacement. The latter is then measured by an analog device (strain gage, piezeoelectric crystal, variable distance between capacitor plates, and the like). Since these elements are likely to be made of different materials (bronze diaphragm, stainless-steel case, semiconductor strain gage), each will react to the temperature change in a different way. This is especially serious during cooldown, when the transient nature of material and construction prohibits all of the pressure-gage elements from being at the same temperature at the same time. Under steady-state conditions it is often possible to provide some temperature compensation through the well-known instrument technique of common-mode-rejection. Such compensation is generally not successful during transient temperature fluctuations. Only two courses of action are open: (1) hand-check each type of pressure transducer for thermal noise by thermally shocking it with immersion in liquid nitrogen; and (2) simplify the pressure-transducer construction to eliminate differences between materials. Some success has been observed in the latter area by manufacturers who make very small pressure sensing elements from a single semiconductor chip. The miniature size of these devices helps to reduce or eliminate temperature gradients across the device. The single-element nature of the pressure-gage assembly reduces differences in materials of construction.

Liquid Level The measurements for dense fluids such as liquid oxygen and liquid nitrogen are made in the conventional CPI approach using floats. Sight glasses cannot be used since radiation and thermal conduction would cause the cryogenic fluid within the sight glass to boil. The very light cryogens, liquid helium and liquid hydrogen, cannot sustain a float. Liquid hydrogen has the density of Styro-

foam,™ about 70 g/l, making floating devices impractical. Some electrical analog is used for hydrogen and helium, most frequently a linear concentric-tube electrical capacitor. The dielectric constant of cryogens is related to their density by the Clausius-Mosotti relation. As the liquid level rises, the greater dielectric constant of the liquid between the tubes causes the overall capacitance to vary in a linear fashion. For best accuracy, these capacitance liquid-level measuring devices should be calibrated in place.

Flow The measurement of cryogenic fluids is most troublesome. Flow rate is not a natural physical parameter, like temperature, but is a derived quantity. A measurement of mass (or volume) must be made over a time interval to derive the flow rate. Because of this, any flow meter is only as good as its calibration. At this time, there is no national capability for calibrating cryogenic flowmeters. From data developed early in the nation's space program, considerable confidence has been developed in turbine-type flowmeters and in pressure-drop-type flowmeters. If all the usual ASTM guidelines are followed for meter installation, and if adequate temperature corrections are applied to changes in dimensions, then such meters can have an accuracy of ±1 percent of their water calibrations. For very small flow applications, the Coriolis meters are promising. Vortex shedding flow meters appear useful for very large flow rates. Nonetheless, an actual calibration on the cryogen of interest is the only proof of accuracy.

Temperature The level of the temperature measurement (4 K, 20 K, 77 K, or higher) is the first issue to be considered. The second issue is the range needed (e.g., a few degrees around 90 K or 1 to 400 K). If the temperature level is that of air separation or liquefact-ing of natural gas (LNG), then the favorite choice is the platinum resistance thermometer (PRT). Platinum, as with all pure metals, has an electrical resistance that goes to zero as the absolute temperature decreases to zero. Accordingly, the lower useful limit of platinum is about 20 K, or liquid hydrogen temperatures. Below 20 K, semiconductor thermometers (germanium-, carbon-, or silicon-based) are preferred. Semiconductors have just the opposite resistance-temperature dependence of metals—their resistance increases as the temperature is lowered, as fewer valence electrons can be promoted into the conduction band at lower temperatures. Thus, semiconductors are usually chosen for temperatures from about 1 to 20 K.

If the temperature range of interest is large, say 1 to 400 K, then diode thermometers are recommended. Diodes have other advantages compared to resistance thermometers. By contrast, diode thermometers are very much smaller and faster. By selection of diodes all from the same melt, they may be made interchangeable. That is, one diode has the same calibration curve as another, which is not always the case with either semiconductor or metallic-resistance thermometers. It is well known, however, that diode thermometers may rectify an ac field, and thus may impose a dc noise on the diode output. Adequate shielding is required.

Special applications, such as in high-magnetic fields, require special thermometers. The carbon-glass and strontium-titinate resistance thermometers have the least magnetoresistance effects.

Thermocouples are unsurpassed for making temperature-difference measurements. The thermoelectric power of thermocouple materials makes them adequate for use at liquid-air temperatures and above. At 20 K and below, the thermoelectric power drops to a few |lV/K, and their use in this range is as much art as science.

A descriptive flowchart has been prepared by Sparks (Materials at Low Temperatures, ASM, Metal Park, OH, 1983) to show the temperature range of cryogenic thermometers in general use today. Parese and Molinar (Modern Gas-Based Temperature and Pressure Measurements, Plenum, New York, 1992) provide details on gas- and vapor-pressure thermometry at these temperatures.

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