Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold  




Topic 12: Cold Medicine

The first scientists who made cold liquids out of gases like hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen did so simply because they were trying to understand states of matter and what makes things cold. But over time, people have put those liquids to use in all sorts of modern applications -- as can clearly be seen in the field of medicine.

The ability to create liquid oxygen means hospitals have an easy way to store oxygen for their patients. A single liter of liquid oxygen (around three soda cans’ worth) will expand 862 times when allowed to come to room temperature -- and that will fill some five oxygen tanks. So as long as you keep it cold you can store a huge amount of oxygen in a small space.

Doctors use liquid nitrogen more directly to fight illness. A dab will help remove warts and moles, painlessly freezing them so they fall off. The same principle is used in more serious surgery too. Cryogenic liquids can be used to kill off unhealthy tissues like cancers on the skin. (This is in fact what happens when you get frostbite -- extreme cold kills human tissue. But when a doctor does it, the cold is focused on a sick part of your body.) And new research is even studying how to freeze just a bit of the muscle on the heart to cure arrhythmia.

Doctors also make use of cryogenic temperatures when storing important tissues. A simple freezer destroys live cells because the slow freezing process causes the cells to deform], but liquid nitrogen can flash freeze things like blood and bone marrow for safe long-term storage.

Additional Resources


More Topics

  • Topic 1: Measuring the Cold - Thermometers
  • Topic 2: Understanding Heat and Energy
  • Topic 3: States of Matter
  • Topic 4: Refrigeration
  • Topic 5: Cryogenics
  • Topic 6: The Quest for Absolute Zero
  • Topic 7: How Animals Survive the Cold
  • Topic 8: Superconductivity
  • Topic 9: Astronomy
  • Topic 10: Spaceflight
  • Topic 11: Agriculture
  • Topic 12: Cold Medicine
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