Medical

Cryogenic freezing and what it says about ‘future-proofing’

29th April 2022
Sam Holland

Cryogenic freezing may be a staple of science fiction, but does it have any basis in science fact? There are certainly cryogenic freezing facilities out there already – preserving the cells of legally-declared-dead bodies for a time (if such a time is even remotely possible) when corpses may be reanimated. This article questions, however, whether this field of cryogenic engineering could ever stand the ultimate test of time.

What is a cryogenic freezing facility?

A cryogenic freezing facility is a site wherein cryogenic chambers are used to deep freeze a deceased human (some would say ‘patient’ or even ‘future patient’) in the hopes that medicine will one day have the potential to revive that cadaver’s dead – but ostensibly safely preserved – cells.

The process’s keywords and their definitions are covered in the next subsections.

Cryogenic

The term ‘cryogenic’ first and foremost refers to the physics of very low temperatures and how to exploit them. Cryogenic engineering, for instance, refers to how materials behave and function at freezing temperatures and the various industry applications (such as those within materials science) that arise from which.

But of course, in this context, the word is exclusively applied to such research in terms of human preservation at extremely low temperatures (–196°C) – again, with the purpose being to utilise this state of ‘cryonic suspension’ for a hypothetical future time when cryogenically preserved humans may be revived.

For the following definitions, note that the terms ‘cryogenic’ and ‘cryonic’ are different in that the former is the study of very low temperatures and their applications, whereas the latter is the utilisation of cryogenics specifically for human remains.

Cryopreservation

Cryopreservation (cryogenic preservation) is a state wherein cryogenic freezing has been used to preserve (or attempt to preserve) living tissue, cells, and other areas of biology objects, such as amputated body parts in liquid nitrogen. This is significant as it reflects the fact that cryogenics has been successfully used in medicine for decades: just one example is when an amputated finger is frozen in preparation for transplant surgery.

Cryonic suspension

Cryonic suspension can be considered a very specific subset of cryopreservation, because while cryonic suspension does involve the use of cryogenic freezing to preserve human tissue, it encompasses the preservation of all of a human body rather than just parts of it.

Cryonic suspension is so-called because all, not just parts, of the decomposition processes are ‘suspended’ – in other words, postponed indefinitely.

Aside from the medical questions and ethical dilemmas of reanimating deceased organs, especially the brain, one further question that will now be posed is what engineering can be used to ensure cryonic chambers are functional even simply at the hardware level. Put briefly: how reliably can cryonics achieve – not only long-term cryopreservation – but the potentially permanent cryonic suspension of a human body itself?

The question that cryonics brings to the term ‘future proof’

Equipment failure is the enemy of any engineering and maintenance processes of course, but in the context of cryonic suspension, the damage of broken-down apparatus is far worse still. It will render any chance of revival for the cryogenic chamber’s occupant non-existent (again: assuming, for sake of argument, that any such chance could exist in the first place).

The world-leading NPO in cryonics itself, Alcor Life Extension Foundation, explains on its website that such equipment failures must be recognised and learned from. According to Alcor, in 1972, a problem arose due to the design of a cryogenic chamber belonging to the now-defunct CSC (Cryonics Society of California). Owing to the CSC's financial difficulties and resource shortages, it had two female bodies inside, as opposed to a sole deceased occupant.

While the chamber (or ‘capsule’ as Alcor calls it) had an array of fill pipes to allow staff to apply liquid nitrogen to the encapsulated occupant without needing to open the container, there was a downside to this solution. The point of entry that these pipes allowed meant that the heat conduction outside of the chamber interfered with its interior. Alcor explains that “one consequence, besides increasing the boiloff [i.e. the vaporisation) of liquid nitrogen, was [in the] icing of the lid, which made it difficult to open the capsule for periodic inspections of the interior”.

This draws on just one problem with the question of future-proofing in the field of cryonics: the capsules, no matter how well-engineered they are, will still need to be inspected by the living. And no matter how well cryonics facilities are insured, many companies have already tried and failed to sustain the use of body-freezing chambers. This is just one reason why the staff will not always be there for maintenance.

On top of this, with this reliance on humans must also come the acceptance of human error. In the above example, the capsule required staff to break off the overabundance of ice that the chamber generated owing to its flawed design. In 1978, the ice was broken by one or more members of CSC too forcefully (presumably with a hammer) and the resultant damage broke the vacuum jacket of the already-imperfect chamber. The bodies had to be stored separately until the chamber could be repaired, all prior to their being reinserted in that same capsule.

Similar problems occurred in the year that followed, and by 1980, the continued decomposition that occurred from all various removals and repairs resulted in the discontinuation of the project – and indeed, the lawsuits to the company itself.

While the CSC’s failed cryogenic chamber may be considered a single cautionary tale from days gone by, it is in fact one of the many morbid stories that occurred since cryonic suspension was first attempted in 1967. What we are left with – even now after far more research and development into cryonics, cryonic preservation, and of course cryogenic engineering itself – is yet more reason to see how the term ‘future-proof’ is being put to the ultimate test. In fact, the ultimate test of time itself.

And so far, cryonics is failing in that test. Can any system of engineering, especially one that may be plagued by human error, be relied on all the way up to a time that may never even come? Even the best designers and manufacturers will likely deem such a level of engineering and maintenance impossible. But, at the very least, the controversial procedure can inform further areas of cryogenic engineering, and perhaps even further inform the methods by which surgeons may preserve living tissues for future operations.

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