Cryocooler Market and its Key Opportunities and Challenges
How advancement of cryocoolers in microsatellite military applications present an opportunity?
The need for microsat technology mission enablers, such as cryocoolers, has increased. Unfortunately, due to the complex thermodynamic processes, cryocoolers do not scale down linearly. In view of this, research is being conducted at the Spacecraft Component Thermal Research Group, Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), to increase the efficiency of space-qualified cryocoolers to reduce size, weight, and power. This increase in efficiency will provide more options, such as better detector sensitivity and signal/noise ratio, for an EO IR microsatellite. Air Liquide’s P-T miniature cryocooler, Raytheon’s P-T cryocooler thermo-mechanical unit, and Northrop Grumman Space Technology’s high frequency coaxial P-T microcooler are some of the miniature cryocoolers that have the potential to meet the needs of military microsatellite.
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Why performance constraint of cryocoolers remain a challenge?
Operating temperature, vibration, cooling capacity, field maintenance, refrigeration efficiency, limited flexibility, and reliability are the operating and performance parameters of cryocoolers. Vibrations generated by the refrigeration compressor of cryocoolers have long been identified as a critical integration issue.
4K cryocoolers (both G-M and P-T) suffer from vibrations at the cold stage of as much as 60 microns and thermal fluctuations of about 0.25–0.5 K. Vibrations and thermal fluctuations limit many types of research in closed-cycle refrigerator systems. As cryocoolers are mechanical devices with moving parts, maintenance is required for both the compressor and the cryocooler head. Earlier, Stirling cryocoolers had higher levels of vibration, necessitating maintenance at shorter intervals. However, their mean-time-to-failure (MTTF) of about 4,000 hours (approximately 0.5 year) is short of the required 5–10 years lifetime needed for satellite applications and even 3–5 years lifetime for most commercial applications. Also, achieving high reliability is a key design driver for cryogenic systems to provide continuous cooling. However, continuous research and development activities are being undertaken to provide high-efficiency cryocoolers.
Scarcity of helium gas
Helium is the second-lightest element on the earth. The growing use of helium gas and liquid helium for industrial purposes may lead to the extinction of helium in the next decade. Furthermore, there are studies that have highlighted the growing depletion of helium gas over the past few years. Professor Robert from Cornell University (US) stated that Helium reserves would run out by 2030. Helium is an inert gas and has extremely high melting and boiling points, allowing it to be used in cryogenics, high-energy accelerators, arc welding, silicon wafer manufacturing, etc. In addition, liquid helium is utilized in cryogenics to cool superconducting magnets, with MRI scans being the major commercial application. As a result, helium is getting depleted at a faster rate, increasing the cost. The extraction of helium from air is very difficult and costly, and the cost is going to increase further because of the limited availability of helium reserves in the rocks.
It can be completely replaced by a cryocooler. To counter the depleting helium resources, cryocoolers were introduced to generate low temperatures, which were otherwise done by liquid helium. Cryocoolers are increasingly being employed because they do not require cryogens, and they also offer reliable and maintenance-free operations.
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