Cryogenics, the production of low temperatures, is a major business in the United States with an annual market in excess of 12 billion dollars. It is a very diverse supporting technology, a means to an end and not an end in itself. For example, the combined production of oxygen and nitrogen, obtained by the cryogenic separation of air, accounts for 15 percent of the total annual U.S. production of 2.77 X 1011 kg (611 billion pounds) of organics and inorganics (1993 C & EN Annual Report). Liquid hydrogen production, in the last four decades, has risen from laboratory quantities to a level of over 2.1 kg/s, first spurred by nuclear weapons development and later by the United States space program. Similarly, the space age increased the need for liquid helium by more than a factor of ten, requiring the construction of large plants to separate helium from natural gas by cryogenic means. The demands for energy have likewise accelerated the construction of large base-load liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants around the world and have been responsible for the associated domestic LNG industry of today with its use of peak shaving plants.
Freezing as a means of preserving food dates back to 1840. However, today the food industry uses large quantities of liquid nitrogen for this purpose and as a refrigerant in frozen-food transport systems. In biological applications liquid-nitrogen cooled containers are routinely used to preserve whole blood, tissue, bone marrow, and animal semen for extended periods of time. Cryogenic surgery has become accepted in curing such involuntary disorders as Parkinson's disease. Medical analysis of patients has increased in sophistication with the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) which utilizes cryogenically cooled superconducting magnets. Finally, one must recognize the role that cryogenics plays in the chemical-processing industry with the recovery of valuable feedstocks from natural gas streams, upgrading the heat content of fuel gas, purification of various process and waste streams, the production of ethylene, and so on.
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