Can cryogenic cooling miraculously improve car parts, sports equipment, and musical instruments?
January 16, 2009
I've been hearing a lot lately about miraculous improvements in auto engine parts, golf balls and clubs, razors, and even brass and stringed musical instruments, all by subjecting the object in question to a deep freeze of 300 degrees or more. Is there any solid evidence for this? Sounds like pseudoscience to me.
— Mickey Houlahan, Chicago
I wouldn't go that far. As a former high school science fair geek, I've got a soft spot for cryogenics, as the science of deep freezing is known. Anything that lets you hammer rubber nails into a two-by-four with a mercury mallet — I'm telling you, with the right crowd, a stunt like that kills. More seriously, cryogenics has been the subject of continuing research for over a century. The federal government bought a hydrogen liquefier in 1904; to this day NASA operates a Cryogenics Test Laboratory at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In short, cryogenics is a legit field of study. That doesn't mean a cryogenically treated club will help you play better golf.
Deep freezing produces detectable improvements in performance mostly when metals are involved. (I don't claim it won't help other materials, but research into cold-treating of composites and such, from what I can tell, is less well advanced.) That's because of the quirky process known as crystallization. Depending on what you do while working it, a metal can crystallize in varying ways, yielding products with markedly different properties.
One thing that determines what kind of crystals you end up with is how much and how fast you cool the metal after you heat or melt it (quenching a sword is a good example). As the metal sheds heat, its crystal structure changes, then ultimately stabilizes, usually well before you reach room temperature. But if you keep cooling the metal to exceptionally low temperatures, like -300 degrees Fahrenheit, you can force the crystals to change shape again, sometimes to advantage. Done right, some contend, deep freezing can make metal harder while reducing residual stresses. Result: a more abrasion-resistant, less brittle part.
Or so goes the theory. How well it works in practice is debatable. Cold treatment of some types of dental drills, for example, made them cut better and faster through teeth, but other types didn't show any change. More to the point, another study noted that while the treated drills were slightly harder and thus presumably more wear-resistant, in practice they worked no better than the ordinary kind.
As far as golf gear goes, Nicklaus Golf Equipment once offered an assortment of drivers with cryogenically treated metal faces (the "Airmax" line) but stopped making them several years ago and doesn't currently deep-freeze any of its clubs. When we contacted the Nicklaus folks, they told us the reason they discontinued cryogenic treatment wasn't that it didn't help — they insisted it did — but that USGA rules changes in 2004 allowed bigger club heads for drivers, giving them an alternative route to improved club performance. I take "alternative" here to mean "simpler" and likely "cheaper." In any case, the day of cryogenic golf clubs seems to have come and gone. An informal survey of golf shops found that none offered cold-treated clubs from well-known makers.
Turning to musical instruments, we see the same does-something-sometimes-but-so-what pattern. For trumpets, a couple of limited studies showed no real difference between cryogenically treated and untreated instruments. Stringed instruments seem to be a different story. My assistant Una contacted Chen Jer-Ming, a graduate researcher in music acoustics at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, who studied the effects of cryogenic treatment on steel guitar strings. He found cooling the strings to -300 F for 30 hours produced subtle but unmistakable changes in their crystal structure. Afterward the strings showed slightly increased strength, 15 percent less stretching over time, and 35 percent greater stiffness, meaning they might be louder, break less, and require less frequent tuning. The drawback, according to Chen: they produced a tinnier tone. In other words, you wound up with strings that lasted longer but sounded worse.
Conclusion: Cryogenic treatment may yet yield some useful products, but right now I'm not seeing much.
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