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The cry for cryogenics

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?

—Mickey Houlahan, Chicago

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. 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.

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.

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 researcher in music acoustics 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: they produced a tinnier tone.

Conclusion: Cryogenic treatment may yet yield some useful products, but right now I’m not seeing much.


Assume that a malevolent corporation fills you up with nanorobots, and they’ll sever your spinal nerves one week from now. What do you do? My thoughts on this turn to my microwave oven. —Nicholas, via e-mail

Haven’t got this totally figured out yet, Nick, but I’ll say this: If the choice is between blowing up your microwave oven and rampaging with a nuclear device, go with the oven. cs

By Cecil Adams

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