SNAKE OIL

snake oilCryogenic treatment is ineffective in properly heat treated components. No solid-state transformations occur below the martensite finish temperature (Mf). Non-ferrous materials are not affected by cryogenic treatment because they contain no retained austenite for transformation to martensite. It is also obvious, to even the casual observer that the earth is flat and the sun and stars rotate around us.

Fortunately, I was unaware of any of this conventional wisdom when I was first introduced to cryogenic processing thirty eight years ago. My background had been in physics; specifically non-linear spectroscopy and quantum electronics. A high school course in metallurgy in the ’60s provided the basis for my understanding of metals and consequently I didn’t realize that cryogenic treatment was essentially “snake oil.” I had only the observations, made by reasonable people who had availed themselves of treatment services that remarkable improvements in performance could result from cryogenic processing. Based on this admittedly non-scientific study, I undertook with a partner, Bruce Norian, a radical career change, forming our company to offer cryogenic treatment services and eventually to design, manufacture, and sell Cryo-processing equipment.

Having come from a sheltered academic background, I was ill prepared for the response of some prospective customers; even after we had demonstrated the technical and cost effectiveness of the process. A particular encounter, now over three decades old, remains vivid in my memory. We had successfully treated a guillotine bade for a major manufacturer; the engineer who supervised the test reported three times more production from the blade after treatment as compared to the identical untreated blade. When asked if he’d like to treat a meaningful quantity of tooling, the engineer replied, “If cryogenic treatment was so good, then we would have been doing it years ago.” Period. This otherwise rational individual was telling me that he was not about to believe his own eyes. He hadn’t learned about cryogenic treatment in school; his superiors (at the large multinational company) hadn’t either and he wasn’t going to fall into a trap set by some crafty salesman (me). Snake oil!

Years have passed since this sobering encounter and along the way there have been additional rebuffs; but there have also been many instances of courageous acceptance of this very cost effective technology. Scores of new service providers have entered the market in the past few years, spreading the message and helping to educate the manufacturing community. In the early days, when I’d make a sales call, carefully and conservatively explaining the known mechanisms and advantages of cryogenic processing, the responses ranged from restrained skepticism to outright dismay. We had trouble giving it away! Today, the situation has improved dramatically due to the collective effort of many “pioneers” to get the word out. We now routinely receive unsolicited requests for treatment services and for processing equipment. This increased activity has produced a wealth of feedback attesting to the validity of cryogenic treatment as a productivity enhancer. Novel and unexpected applications are discovered on a regular basis. Silver and brass instruments and instrument strings have their acoustic properties altered during treatment, and musicians like the change! Vacuum tubes become less microphonic and hence do their thing better when treated. High performance internal combustion engines yield higher performance. Guns shoot straighter and vegetable seeds germinate sooner. Figure skaters glide easier, surgeons cut cleaner and baseball players and golfers hit further. If this is snake oil, then someone ought to bottle the stuff!

Over two thousand years ago, Eratosthenes (Greek scientific writer, astronomer, and poet, who made the first measurement of the size of Earth) demonstrated that the earth is spherical and by using simple instruments, a protractor and measuring stick, was able to accurately estimate its diameter. Copernicus suggested and Johannes Kepler proved, by painstakingly constructing a mathematical model that accurately reproduced the best observations of the day, that the earth is not the center of the universe. In doing so, they gave us the foundation of celestial mechanics and ushered in a new, rational way of understanding nature, displacing mythology and astrology. Prior to the work of these remarkable men, the concepts they promulgated were derided as snake oil by the great authorities: Aristotle, Plato, Ptolemy, etc. Careful observation followed by rational thought and mathematical modeling is the essence of the scientific method which enables us to understand the world, turn nature to our benefit and improve our lives; it distinguishes us from all the other species on earth.

The benefits of cryogenic processing are established; the observation phase has proceeded for more than sixty years now. It’s time to move on to a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms by application of the methodology of science. In so doing, we gain intellectually, we hopefully refine the technology, and most importantly, help to dispel the skepticism that impedes widespread acceptance of a process that can help make better products available at reduced costs to everyone.

The ASM has wisely decided to foster this effort by establishing a committee on cryogenic processing whose initial effort will be to establish a data base of all existing research publications related to cryogenic treatment. By making this data base available to the academic and industrial research communities, we may stimulate additional research which will ultimately put cryogenic treatment on an equal footing with conventional heat treatment that occurs at super-atmospheric temperatures.

Some day, hopefully soon, cryogenic treatment will be a routinely specified manufacturing process to the benefit of all. Meanwhile, those whom have already adopted it have an edge.

Dr. Jeffery Levine.