Industrial Heating

300 Below, Inc. was featured in the Aug 1992 issue of Industrial Heating.


Durability is the most important criterion used to define the quality of a tool steel. Cryogenic treatment and tempering of metals has been acknowledged for almost thirty years as an effective method for increasing durability, or “wear life” and decreasing residual stress in tool steels. Deep cryogenics (below -300°F) is creating many new applications in science. High temperature superconductors, the super-conducting super collider, cryo-biology, magneto-hydrodynamic drive systems for ships, and low temperature physics have all developed recently.

The deep cryogenic treatment and tempering process for metals is economical. It is a one time permanent treatment, affecting the entire part, not just the surface. The treatment may be applied to new or used tools, sharp or dull, and resharping will not destroy the imparted properties. Benefits achieved from subjecting tools to this treatment include: increases in tensile strength, toughness, and stability through the re-lease of internal stresses. The exceptional increase in wear resistivity, generally exceeding 200% is the greatest benefit.

Steel surfaces requiring wear resistance, such as in the cases of drill bits, end mills, surgical scissors, bearings, racing engines, slicers and granulator knives, all benefit from the in-expensive treatment. New applications are being discovered continuously.


A research metallurgist at the National Bureau of Standards in Boulder Colorado, states, “When carbon precipitates form, the internal stress in the martensite is reduced, which minimizes the susceptibility to micro-cracking. The wide distribution of very hard, fine carbides from deep cryogenic treatment, also increases wear resistance.” The study concludes: “…fine carbon carbides and resultant tight lattice structures are precipitated from cryogenic treatment. These particles are responsible for the exceptional wear characteristics imparted by the process, due to a denser molecular structure and resulting larger surface area of contact, reducing friction, heat and wear.” There have been skeptics of the cryogenic process for some time, be-cause it imparts no apparent visible changes to the metal. Since proper heat treating can transform 85% of the retained austenite to martensite and the deep cryogenic process only transforms an additional 8 to 15%, the deep cryogenic treatment has been considered an inefficient process. While these percentages are correct, the conclusion drawn from them is inaccurate. In addition to the trans-formation to martensite, the subjected metals also develop a more uniform, refined microstructure with greater density. Although known to exist, this type of microstructure was only recently quantified scientifically. Particles known as “binders” are coupled with the precipitation of the additional microfine carbide “fillers”. The fillers take up the remaining space in the micro-voids, resulting in a much denser, coherent structure of the tool steel. These particles are identified and counted in the above study cited, using a scanning electron microscope with field particle quantification (an automatic particle counter). It is now believed that these particles are largely responsible for the great gains in wear resistivity. The permanent irreversible molecular change created is uniform throughout the tool, unlike coatings, and will last the life of the tool, regardless of any subsequent finishing operations or regrinds. Fig. 1 shows two photomicrographs (1000 • ) representative of samples from the same S-7 bar stock. The first is untreated S-7. The second was deep cryogenically treated. Both samples initially were conventionally heat treated: that is, austenitized and oil quenched. The deep cryogenic treatment consisted of varying ramp with pause at -150°F for 1 hr, at 270°F for 2 hr and soaking for 8 hr at 310’F, followed by tempering at 300″F for 1 hr, AC to room temperature and tempering at 225°F, AC. In this micro-structure, note the considerably greater number of fine particles coupled with fine carbides in comparison with the untreated sample. The martensitic transformation is readily apparent.


The cryogenic cycle is an extension of standard heat-treatment, and creates many outstanding increases in durability. Some examples are as follows. A major aircraft manufacturer testing deep cryogenic treatment found that with only six different tools treated, the savings in tool purchases could exceed $5 million.

An Arizona State study conducted by Laurel Hunt, used deep treated C-2 deburring tools on INCONEL alloy 718, achieving a 400% improvement based on weight, after five cuts of .003 in. (.007 cm) on this alloy. This deep cryogenic treatment of an 8% cobalt end mill has made dramatic improvements in two important ways. The number of milling cuts was increased from three before deep cryogenic processing, to 78 cuts after processing (26 times the wear life). Resharpening the end mills after deep cryogenic treatment required only 1/3 the amount of stock removal to restore the tool geometry.

Rockwell, a major aircraft manufacturer, using C-2 carbide inserts to mill epoxy graphite, doubles their output after deep cryogenic treatment of the inserts. In a second test, a 400% improvement was achieved upon milling 4340 stainless steel with cryogenic treated tool.

Other applications include: Leading national stock car drivers who previously raced only 4-8 races between equipment teardowns, drove in 40+ races before teardown after cryogenically treating block, crank, cam, pistons and heads.

Durability in terms of length of cutting time increased from 20 minutes to 45 minutes with a shallow cryogenic cycle.

Fig. 2 illustrates the seven separate heat/cool cycles used to temper the lathe cutting tools. The tools were then used to cut 0.5% structural carbon steel (see Table I). Durability was established by measuring the radical component of wear.

Deep Cryogenic Cycle vs Shallow Cryogenic Cycle
Separate laboratory testing has been accomplished by Dr. Randall F. Barron at Louisiana Tech University. The results by Dr. Barron more than substantiated the Jassy study. In one series of tests compared were five common steel alloys (see Fig. 4). First they were wear tested as pro-cured, then as chilled to -120°F and finally tested after treating at -317°F. In all cases the cold treatment improved wear resistance; the colder the treatment, the more favorable the results. The -120°F (dry ice) treatment improved ratios ranging from 1.2 to 2 times depending on the alloy. This is consistent with the Jassy findings. However, the deep cryogenic treatment in liquid nitrogen at -317°F soak improved wear resistance by even greater ratios running from 2 to 6.6 times.


The deep cryogenic process has had an Achilles heel. It has been inconsistent. In the past, improvements to cutting tools would vary from little improvement to over 1000% increased in useful life. The key to effective improvements consistently is proper processing. If a cutting tool is dropped in liquid nitrogen, without temperature control, the tool could shatter. Metals require specific cooling rates; temperature changes must be controlled exactly to obtain the optimal cooling curve. The computer processor solves the problem, since it allows exact duplication of the optimal cooling curve, repeatedly. The older cryogenic tanks did not have adequate controls. A relatively new cryogenic system (model 2953, lead illustration) achieves consistent results. The new cryogenic machines operate with controlled dry thermal treatment. “Controlled” simply means that the process is performed according to a precise prescribed time table. A process controller (Yokogawa UP 25) operates the descent, soak and ascent modes (see Fig. 5). Generally, the material is cooled slowly to -317°F, held for 20-60 hr then raised to +300°F, and slowly returned to room temperature. The machine switches over to the electrical resistance mode for the tempering operation. The “dry” process prevents the metals from being subjected to liquid nitrogen, and eliminates the placing of an item in the freezer and pushing a button.

A breakthrough in system insulation has been achieved as a result of the space program. The system is de-signed to accomplish thermal transfer, and the more efficient the better. It is essential to transfer therms from the liquid nitrogen to the metal parts being treated, without losing the therms to the outside. Thus, the vacuum chamber is designed for three-level insulation. Walls of the chamber are 3 in. stainless steel. On the inside wall are 125 wrapped layers of aluminized polyester film. Inside the chamber itself is 2 in. polyisocyanurate high density foam which is coated with Ceramaseal amorphous vapor barrier comprised of microspherical ceramic globes. A 93% increase in processing ability is accomplished with the “space shuttle insulation” in the vacuum walls, providing considerable savings in processing and making the treatment economical for a variety of items in addition to tooling.


Potentially every tool heat treated is a candidate for the additional service of cryogenic treatment and tempering. It is economical to provide the additional improvement of any perishable item.

There are more than a handful of large tooling manufacturers utilizing the process today for manufacturing a premium line of cutting tools.

More than 200 heat treaters provide cold cryogenic services. However, 95% of these are only utilizing -120°F (dry ice) treatments. Only a handful of companies provide cryogenic treatment below 300°F, which results in much more impressive results and accompanying benefits.

A small Massachusetts firm has been processing items for 12 years. The strings on a piano which was previously tuned every six months were treated. The piano has not been tuned for five years. Musicians who play guitar and violin firmly believe that the strings are brighter in sound. Oscilloscopes confirm a shift after treatment.

A firm in Michigan has been processing with the method for 27 years. They also specialize in stress relief of the plastic material used in contact lenses, among other items. A cryogenic treating company in Phoenix treats many aerospace parts. Another processor in Ohio treats many car-bide tools. The treatment is gaining acceptance nationwide. The process is used in Europe and Australia under the trade name CryoTough, a BOC treatment.


While not a “Magic-Wand” which will extend the life of everything, over 100 tools such as reamers, taps, dies, broaches, drills, endmills, slicers and cutting knives do respond consistently to this process. Cryogenic services can create a “premium” more profitable tool line for a manufacturer. It is also saving considerable tool expense for the end user. The process is effective throughout the tool unlike a coating, so tools can be resharpened and retain the benefits of the treatment until completely worn out. The process also works with TiN coatings.

When a specific tool receives wear extension, there is a 95% certainty similar tools will respond consistently in the future to the same exact cycle. Among the properties which define the cutting qualities of a tool steel, durability is the highest importance. Results in this regard are decisive in establishing the benefits of cryogenic treatment and also answer the decades long question, “what happens when parts are tested in this manner?”