Introducing Cool Fuel: Fueling Cryogenics for the 21st Century!

by Dr. Jacob Leachman, associate professor, Washington State University,

Please allow me to begin this inaugural column by way of saying thanks, establishing intent and anticipating topics for the coming year. The call to action will wait until the end.

Thank you to the CSA and to Laurie Huget, for stewarding Cold Facts as a beacon of the cryogenics community over the years. I remember receiving my first copy of Cold Facts when I started as a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison back in 2007. I expected the standard company advertising. I did not expect to need the Buyer’s Guide so much. Nor did I anticipate the appositeness of the technical columns for alleviating the very practical challenges of cryogenics. Thank you to my predecessors who voluntarily contributed the columns and thank you again to the Cold Facts team for the opportunity to further this tradition of community service.

For those of you who don’t know me, I founded the Hydrogen Properties for Energy Research (HYPER) laboratory at Washington State University in 2010. Research in the HYPER lab spans a wide area of technology readiness levels, from the thermophysical properties of cryogenic fluids and mixtures to complex systems for vehicular fuel production. Over the last decade it seems like growth in this area is rapidly outpacing the supply of newly trained cryogenics personnel. Based on this trend, my intent for the “Cool Fuel” column is to fuel the cryogenics community, both literally and figuratively. Topics you’ll see explored by the column include: 1) Is there a shortage of trained personnel in cryogenics and what can we do about it? 2) How do we address cryogenic fuel safety as the marketplace rapidly expands? And 3) Can we reframe and overcome some of the technological challenges holding all of us back?

The most daunting of the challenges our community faces in the 21st Century is maintaining a critical mass of our nation’s best and brightest scientists, engineers and technicians, as many of our best plan to retire over the next
decade. I’ll break down the problem into two parts: 1) awareness of the cryogenics community and 2) access to training programs and support from colleagues.

There’s no shortage of cool project areas in cryogenics these days: space, quantum computing, fusion energy, clean energy and clean transport, to name a few. These are the fields that aspiring new engineers want to work in
when they pass through my office. The irony is that our cool field is suddenly hot; so much so that I’m going to call our field vogue—literally. Go to any mall and you’ll see shirts sporting the NASA logo in the front windows of the trendiest shops. However, ask any of these aspiring youth about cryogenics and you’ll get a blank stare. They often confuse cryogenics with cryonics (frozen bodies). They haven’t realized that cryogenics is the skill set allowing them to work in any of these fields.

Over the last two years, I’ve polled friends who work in cryogenics. Everyone has echoed the sentiment that there seems to be a heightened shortage of qualified personnel. I fear that this shortage will rapidly worsen with at least one aerospace company planning to hire 1,000 new employees in 2020 alone with cryogenic engineers being a primary hiring category. Many of these organizations will have to train persons in cryogenics upon hiring, due to the absence of independent training programs. Many of my friends acknowledge that this insular approach is not the way to cultivate the cross-pollination of new ideas to drive innovation and advance our field. To give you an idea how close we are to not having critical mass, a program manager in thermal and transport processes at the National Science Foundation told me, “We don’t have anyone qualified to review proposals in cryogenics. We can’t fund proposals in cryogenics.”

We can begin to fix this. We need to draw in the best and brightest of the next generation into our field. On behalf of the Cryogenic Engineering Conference Planning Board, I’m preparing an open letter to the National Academies and Congress to press the need for funding and awareness of cryogenic research and training. I invite your support for this letter by emphasizing the need for cryogenics at your organization, providing pertinent hiring data and statistics to serve as evidence of a shortage and by committing your organization as cosignatories of the letter. Here’s a link to a survey to start the process:

At the very least, we can all collectively make a big difference by emphasizing the importance of cryogenics to the public relations and hiring professionals within our organizations. I’ve always been amazed at the power of liquid nitrogen ice cream as a conversation starter!

With any luck, and by working together, we may yet find a way to make all of our work a little bit cooler.