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Cryogenic Liquids

Cryogenic fluids, such as liquid air, liquid nitrogen, or liquid oxygen, are used to obtain extremely cold temperatures. Most cryogenic liquids are odorless, colorless, and tasteless when vaporized. When cryogenic liquids are exposed to the atmosphere, however, they create a highly visible and dense fog. All cryogens other than oxygen can displace breathable air and can cause asphyxiation. Cryogens can also cause frostbite on exposed skin and eye tissue.

Cryogens pose numerous hazards. For example, cryogenic vapors from liquid oxygen or liquid hydrogen may cause a fire or explosion if ignited. Materials that are normally noncombustible (e.g., carbon steel) may ignite if coated with an oxygen-rich condensate. Liquefied inert gases, such as liquid nitrogen or liquid helium, are capable of condensing atmospheric oxygen and causing oxygen entrapment or enrichment in unsuspected areas. Extremely cold metal surfaces are also capable of entrapping atmospheric oxygen.

Additional hazards associated with cryogenic liquids include the following:

Cryogenic HazardSource Hazard
Hydrogen, methane, and acetylene Gases are flammable.
Oxygen Increases the flammability of combustibles.
Liquefied inert gases Possible oxygen entrapment.
Extremely cold surfaces Oxygen atmosphere may condense.

Because the low temperatures of cryogenic liquids may affect material properties, take care to select equipment materials accordingly.

Follow these guidelines when working with cryogenic liquids:

  • Before working with cryogenic liquids, acquire a thorough knowledge of cryogenic procedures, equipment operation, safety devices, material properties, protective equipment usage.
  • Keep equipment and systems extremely clean.
  • Avoid skin and eye contact with cryogenic liquids. Do not inhale cryogenic vapors.
  • Pre-cool receiving vessels to avoid thermal shock and splashing.
  • Use tongs to place and remove items in cryogenic liquid.
  • When discharging cryogenic liquids, purge the line slowly. Only use transfer lines specifically designed for cryogenic liquids.
  • Rubber and plastic may become very brittle in extreme cold. Handle these items carefully when removing them from cryogenic liquid.
  • Store cryogenic liquids in double-walled, insulated containers (e.g., Dewar flasks).
  • To protect yourself from broken glass if the container breaks or implodes, tape the exposed glass on cryogenic containers.
  • Do not store cylinders of cryogenic liquids in hallways or other public areas.

IMPORTANT: Be aware of the tremendous expansion and threat of asphyxiation when a cryogenic liquid vaporizes at room temperature.