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Cryogenic shop brings cool breeze to AOR
Staff Sgt. Michael Dietz, 379th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron cryogenics technician, pulls a sample of liquid oxygen from a cart. When the liquid oxygen boils off, Sergeant Dietz does an odor test to ensure the sample is pure. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Nika Glover)
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Cryogenics shop brings cool breeze to AOR

Posted 10/15/2010   Updated 10/16/2010 Email story   Print story


by Staff Sgt. Nika Glover
379th Air Expeditionary Wing public affairs

10/15/2010 - SOUTHWEST ASIA -- A  cool thick mist creeps its way across the ground like a patient ghost in the night searching for someone to haunt. It seeps into cracks and crevasses completely enveloping everything in its path. An Airman dressed in a white jumpsuit looking like a mad scientist on the verge of a major breakthrough emerges from the scene. He slowly takes in a deep breath of the mist and smiles, seemingly satisfied that what he smells is fresh air.

Although cryogenics often brings to mind the gruesome futuristic notion that someone frozen can someday be brought back to life, in the military, it serves a more practical purpose. The six-person cryogenics shop here stays busy shipping, delivering and testing cryogenic fuel, also known as liquid nitrogen and oxygen.

Cryogenics technicians work with extremely cold substances that boil in subzero temperatures then evaporate into breathable air, supplying these substances used in everything from fire extinguishers to aircraft.

Tech. Sgt. Marty Phillips, 379th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron NCOIC of cryogenics, is responsible for making things in the shop run smoothly. Since the team supports such a large mission, he spends his days ensuring requests for the fuel are filled in a timely manner.

"We are the sole source of liquid oxygen in the AOR," Sergeant Phillips said. "Everyone gets it from us. It's shipped to them in 100 gallon tanks by aircraft. This week alone, I've taken in about 9,200 gallons."

Although Sergeant Phillips is a refueling mechanic at his home station, he said he and the other Airmen in the shop received the assignment here because they hold a special identifier as cryogenic technicians.

"A few years ago, I was hand-picked by my flight leadership to go back to school for this job," he said. "I have 11 years of experience in this field. However, I'm coming back to it after a five year break."

According to Sergeant Phillips, the cryogenic career field requires Airmen to have a keen eye and thorough knowledge of how to analyze, handle and correct unusual situations that could develop during the loading or unloading of liquid oxygen and nitrogen.

The fuel the Airmen handle serves many purposes. The oxygen they provide is used as breathing air in aircraft over long flights and for medical reasons during patient transport. The nitrogen is used in aircraft tires and fire extinguishers, among other things.

Although cryogenic fuels were once produced by the Air Force, it has become more cost effective to obtain the fuel from contractors. Sergeant Phillips works with Gulf Cryo, the local cryogenic fuels contractor here, to obtain the fuel.

Passing the test
Before any fuel is delivered and released into the storage tanks, it must go through thorough testing to ensure it's safe and free of harmful contaminants. Sergeant Phillip collects samples of the fuel from the contractor and brings them in for testing.

That's where the 379th ELRS Aerospace Fuels Laboratory comes in. The lab is responsible for testing numerous products in support of the AOR war fighting effort to include aviation fuels, ground fuels, aviator's breathing oxygen and compressed breathing air.

Mr. Robert Lee is a 379th ELRS chemist who works as a quality assurance specialist here; ensuring fuel samples are free of contaminants.

"We test samples for dissolved hydrocarbon content, halogenated solvents such as Freon refrigerants, nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide levels, moisture content and to ensure that the overall oxygen content is not below 99.5 percent," he said.

"We use several techniques to test the samples depending upon the result being reported to include infrared spectroscopy, paramagnetic oxygen analysis, dew point determination and 'the sniff test.' One set of results, such as trace contaminants, are determined using an infrared spectrophotometer fitted with a gas cell that allows us to measure contaminant levels to less than one part per million."

For oxygen purity, Mr. Lee said they use a paramagnetic analyzer that is sensitive to a property unique to oxygen. Then, as gas flows through the device, the oxygen content can be determined by measuring the physical effect of that property on the instruments meters.
"Moisture is measured using a dew point meter, which determines moisture content in air by chilling the gas stream until moisture begins to condense on a mirror," Mr. Lee explained. "The temperature at which the moisture condenses allows you to determine moisture content of the sample."

Lastly, they use the sniff test, where they simply smell the sample. If it has an odor similar to mildew or rotten eggs, they know it's bad. Mr. Lee said the odor test is subjective and used mostly to detect for pronounced or objectionable odors.

"If we find an unexpected contaminant, a contaminant which exceeds threshold concentrations or a sample which falls below acceptable purity levels, the usability of the product is evaluated," he said.

Depending on the particular problem and level of contaminant, Mr. Lee said the tank is generally put on quality hold and a resample from the tank is requested. If the tank fails a second time, he said it is purged and a new delivery is requested.

"Usually the product batches are monitored and the inventory controlled so this sort of thing does not happen," Mr. Lee added. "However, foreign gases are a fact of life. Liquid oxygen in the supply system is always boiling and evaporating. Even with normal handling of the product, relatively nonvolatile contaminants are always increasing in concentration as the amount of liquid decreases."

This is why one aspect of the cryogenic shop's mission is to monitor the levels of ever-increasing contaminants and take corrective action to maintain acceptable levels dictated by their technical orders.

Staff Sgt. Dustin Volpi, 379th ELRS cryogenics technician, said any amount of contamination could potentially contaminate an entire tank.

"I've never experienced it here personally, but I've heard of it," he said." We've had bad samples, but we've never let them in. We just send the samples back."

Maintaining a safe environment
Sergeant Volpi's primary responsibility is tank maintenance. Even though the tanks look airtight, he said they could still potentially develop a buildup of contaminants. So he works to make sure the tanks are in the best condition possible.

Along with maintaining the tanks, he ensures they are safe for delivery.

"The most dangerous aspect of this job is the day-to-day transfer," Sergeant Volpi said. "That's where you have the most likelihood of something happening. We have 30 pounds of pressure in a tank. If you forget to relieve the pressure, it could spill over and cause a cryogenic burn."

Just like the burn one could get from a fire, a cryogenic burn is capable of doing serious damage to human skin and tissue.

"A cryogenic burn is an actual burn, but it freezes the tissue and kills it quickly in the same way," Sergeant Volpi said. "Theoretically, human tissue can freeze that quickly. But it really depends on how large the subject is. That's one of the risks of the job. That's why we wear our protective equipment. It's our only source of defense. Even when we do an odor test, we could get splashed in the face."

Sergeant Volpi and the rest of the team wear a white jumpsuit covering everything but their heads, hands and feet, a thick rubber apron and protective facial gear.

"You have to pay attention when doing this job, Sergeant Volpi said. "On a deployment some people can get complacent but on this job you need to pay attention."
He said before something goes wrong, there is usually warning sign.

"I've heard some pretty bad horror stories of hoses freezing, exploding and harming people," Sergeant Volpi said. "So if you pay attention, that won't happen. Sure it can get monotonous, but complacency can be a killer."

Fueling the mission
Although the fuel the Airmen deliver is freezing cold, they primarily work outside in hot temperatures.

"I'll be honest, cryogenics can be hard work," Sergeant Volpi said. "It's hot and we're out there turning wrenches. But you get to meet a lot of cool people. We work with a lot of agencies that we wouldn't work with at home station.

"Everyone relies on us. But most people don't think about that. Most of them go about their daily lives not realizing just how much our fuel is used for."

As the sole source of liquid oxygen in the AOR, Sergeant Phillips said he takes his job very seriously.

"When an order comes in we try to manifest it all in one day," he said. "It's a quick turn around, but each request comes with an available to load date and a required delivery date and we make sure we can meet it and exceed it."

With such a large scale of responsibility, the Airmen work around the clock in two separate shifts ensuring every order is filled and every mission is successful. They don't seem to mind, since they understand how important they are to the mission.

"We all work pretty well together and I think it's a cool job." said Staff Sgt. Robert Peterson, 379th ELRS cryogenics technician. "This job is definitely different, but I know that if we didn't do it right, planes could be damaged and people could be harmed."

All-in-all, the cryogenics technicians have developed a special bond that allows them to work together seamlessly as a team and accomplish the mission with a synergistic energy not often seen when people work in close-nit environments. These Airmen have found their niche, and they proudly do their jobs with purpose and the comforting knowledge of just how important they are to the AOR.

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