Start Your Cryogenics Career with a Boom!

by Dr. Jacob Leachman, Washington State University, 2018 CSA Boom Awardee,

We are literally surrounded by the cold cryogenic vacuum of space. And it’s only 62 miles away, a factor that should be incredibly unsettling! People often ask how I ended up focusing my career on a niche area like cryogenic hydrogen. To be honest, I had no idea that cryogenics was even a field of research, so I actually started down the path by accident in 2005. Thesis advisors at the University of Idaho provided me the option to write new equations for either hydrogen or natural gas distribution.

I chose hydrogen that fall because of rockets, but got drawn in much further because cryogenics kept coming up as I researched hydrogen properties. It was cryogenics, I discovered, that involved the study of anything below 130 K in temperature, thereby including most of space. And beyond this, cryogenics is incredible because it provides a very simple and pure environment to observe the laws of the universe.

My interest continued to grow during my master’s thesis, including the moment from which I knew I had an opportunity to become an expert on ortho- and parahydrogen. The behavior of hydrogen at cryogenic temperatures is amazing and I was hooked. That led me to write new property models for hydrogen and it was a big way to start a research career.

But it wasn’t until the fall of 2007 that I had a chance to really get my hands on cryogenics, joining Dr. John Pfotenhauer and Dr. Greg Nellis who ran the cryogenic hydrogen (really deuterium) project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I accepted a research position with them sight unseen, and thereafter Pfotenhauer really taught me the fun of experimental cryogenics while Nellis showed me how to perform with cryogenic heat transfer and thermodynamics analysis. It was a perfect pairing.

While at Wisconsin I also discovered the rich history of the cryogenics field. Roger W. Boom originally developed the cryogenics and applied superconductivity laboratory at the university in 1968. I never got to meet Dr. Boom, as he was suffering from Alzheimer’s and had moved away, but I got to know him through his legacy of accomplishments, including his passion for inspiring students to enter the field.

Boom’s Applied Superconductivity Center left UW in 1989 to become a part of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, a CSA CSM, at Florida State University, but the Wisconsin cryogenics lab remains the largest in US-based academia.

In 1996, CSA initiated the Roger W. Boom Award at the Applied Superconductivity Conference as a tribute to the professor’s passion for fostering talented young persons in this field. Steve Van Sciver was the first chairman of the society’s Boom awards committee. The award is given to individuals under the age of 40 showing promise to make significant contributions to cryogenics and superconductivity. Later, the Boom family joined with CSA, helping to fund the award.

I felt humbled to be presented with this award at the 2018 Applied Superconductivity Conference. While there, I got to meet Boom’s great niece and nephew, who described him as a gregarious and warm person concerned with making sure everyone felt welcomed and involved in the community.

Unfortunately, Boom passed away earlier in 2018, and what he missed thereafter was the beginning of a cryogenic renaissance of sorts. For example, never in my lifetime has there been as much interest in space. Companies like Blue Origin, SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and the new NASA Space Launch System (SLS) are all offering commercial spaceflight capabilities, and there’s never been more of a need for young engineers to develop cryogenic skills.

Indeed, at this point many engineers who dream about rockets don’t realize that such technologies have to perform missions almost entirely within the cold cryogenic vacuum of space. Most programs don’t even define cryogenics or vacuum technologies, though “space is hard” is a saying that’s often used because cryogenics and vacuum engineering are actual rocket science.

In fact, cryogenics is so hard that if you don’t have exceptional mentors and student engineers, you simply can’t do it. It’s shocking to realize how few labs in academia are working in this area and only producing a handful of graduates each year. That’s a big problem given the pressing need. So for a renewed interest to take hold, it is time for the cryogenics community to lean-in and rekindle Boom’s legacy. I’ve been very fortunate to have some of the best mentors and students imaginable, but it’s going to take many more following in the spirit of Dr. Boom if we want to be a nation serious about space. ■