Physics of the ‘Bends’:

New Study Helps Explain

Decompression Sickness

Science(June 28, 2010) — As you go about your day-to-day activities, tiny bubbles of nitrogen come and go inside your tissues. This is not a problem unless you happen to experience large changes in ambient pressure, such as those encountered by scuba divers and astronauts. During large, fast pressure drops, these bubbles can grow and lead to decompression sickness, popularly known as “the bends.”

A study in the Journal of Chemical Physics, which is published by the American Institute of Physics (AIP), may provide a physical basis for the existence of these bubbles, and could be useful in understanding decompression sickness.

A physiological model that accounts for these bubbles is needed both to protect against and to treat decompression sickness. There is a problem though. “These bubbles should not exist,” says author Saul Goldman of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

Because they are believed to be composed mostly of nitrogen, while the surrounding atmosphere consists of both nitrogen and oxygen, the pressure of the bubbles should be less than that of the surrounding atmosphere. But if this were so, they would collapse.

“We need to account for their apparent continuous existence in tissues in spite of this putative pressure imbalance,” says Goldman.

If, as is widely believed, decompression sickness is the result of the growth of pre-existing gas bubbles in tissues, those bubbles must be sufficiently stable to have non-negligible half-lives. The proposed explanation involves modeling body tissues as soft elastic materials that have some degree of rigidity. Previous models have focused on bubble formation in simple liquids, which differ from elastic materials in having no rigidity.

Using the soft-elastic tissue model, Goldman finds pockets of reduced pressure in which nitrogen bubbles can form and have enough stability to account for a continuous presence of tiny bubbles that can expand when the ambient pressure drops. Tribonucleation, the phenomenon of formation of new gas bubbles when submerged surfaces separate rapidly, provides the physical mechanism for formation of new gas bubbles in solution. The rapid separation of adhering surfaces results in momentary negative pressures at the plane of separation. Therefore, while these tiny bubbles in elastic media are metastable, and do not last indefinitely, they are replaced periodically. According to this picture, tribonucleation is the source, and finite half-lives the sink, for the continuous generation and loss small gas bubbles in tissues.

Sourced & published by Henry Sapiecha

University of North Texas Cool N2Car – Nitrogen powered prototype car

Designed, built, and tested by Dr. Carlos Ordonez (Physics), Dr. Mitty Plummer (Engineering Technology), and Dr. Rick Reidy (Department of Materials Science) of the University of North Texas , this developmental zero emission vehicle employs a cryogenic heat engine and is fueled by liquid nitrogen. This research was funded by the Texas Advanced Technology Program.

Liquid nitrogen vehicle

(Redirected from Liquid nitrogen economy)

liquid nitrogen vehicle is powered by liquid nitrogen, which is stored in a tank. The engine works by heating the liquid nitrogen in a heat exchanger, extracting heat from the ambient air and using the resulting pressurized gas to operate a piston or rotary engine.

Liquid nitrogen propulsion may also be incorporated in hybrid systems, e.g., battery electric propulsion and fuel tanks to recharge the batteries. This kind of system is called a hybrid liquid nitrogen-electric propulsion. Additionally, regenerative braking can also be used in conjunction with this system.

liquid nitrogen economy is a hypothetical proposal for a future economy in which the primary form of energy storage and transport is liquid nitrogen. It is proposed as an alternative to liquid hydrogen in some transport modes and as a means of locally storing energy captured fromrenewable sources. An analysis of this concept provides insight into the physical limits of all energy conversion schemes.


Currently, most road vehicles are powered by internal combustion engines burning fossil fuel. If transportation is to be sustainable over the long term, the fuel must be replaced by something else produced by renewable energy. The replacement should not be thought of as an energy source; it is a means of transferring and concentrating energy, a “currency” or energy carrier.

Liquid nitrogen is generated by cryogenic or Stirling engine coolers that liquefy the main component of air, nitrogen (N2). The cooler can be powered by renewable-generated electricity or through direct mechanical work from hydro or wind turbines.

Liquid nitrogen is distributed and stored in insulated containers. The insulation reduces heat flow into the stored nitrogen; this is necessary because heat from the surrounding environment boils the liquid, which then transitions to a gaseous state. Reducing inflowing heat reduces the loss of liquid nitrogen in storage. The requirements of storage prevent the use of pipelines as a means of transport. Since long-distance pipelines would be costly due to the insulation requirements, it would be costly to use distant energy sources for production of liquid nitrogen. Petroleum reserves are typically a vast distance from consumption but can be transferred at ambient temperatures.

Liquid nitrogen consumption is in essence production in reverse. The Stirling engine or cryogenic heat engine offers a way to power vehicles and a means to generate electricity. Liquid nitrogen can also serve as a direct coolant for refrigeratorselectrical equipment and air conditioning units. The consumption of liquid nitrogen is in effect boiling and returning the nitrogen to the atmosphere.


Cost of production

Liquid nitrogen production is an energy-intensive process. Currently practical refrigeration plants producing a few tons/day of liquid nitrogen operate at about 50% of Carnot efficiency

Energy density of liquid nitrogen

Any process that relies on a phase-change of a substance will have much lower energy densities than processes involving a chemical reaction in a substance, which in turn have lower energy densities than nuclear reactions. Liquid nitrogen as an energy store has a low energy density. Liquid hydrocarbon fuels by comparison have a high energy density. A high energy density makes the logistics of transport and storage more convenient. Convenience is an important factor in consumer acceptance. The convenient storage of petroleum fuels combined with its low cost has led to an unrivaled success. In addition, a petroleum fuel is a primary energy source, not just an energy storage and transport medium.

The energy density — derived from nitrogen’s isobaric heat of vaporization and specific heat in gaseous state — that can be realised from liquid nitrogen at atmospheric pressure and zero degrees Celsius ambient temperature is about 97 watt-hours per kilogram (W-hr/kg). This compares with about 3,000 W-hr/kg for a gasoline combustion engine running at 28% thermal efficiency, 30 times the density of liquid nitrogen used at the Carnot efficiency

For an isothermal expansion engine to have a range comparable to an internal combustion engine, an 350-litre (92 US gal) insulated onboard storage vessel is required . A practical volume, but a noticeable increase over the typical 50-litre (13 US gal) gasoline tank. The addition of more complex power cycles would reduce this requirement and help enable frost free operation. However, no commercially practical instances of liquid nitrogen use for vehicle propulsion exist.

Frost formation

Unlike internal combustion engines, using a cryogenic working fluid requires heat exchangers to warm and cool the working fluid. In a humid environment, frost formation will prevent heat flow and thus represents an engineering challenge. To prevent frost build up, multiple working fluids can be used. This adds topping cycles to ensure the heat exchanger does not fall below freezing. Additional heat exchangers, weight, complexity, efficiency loss, and expense, would be required to enable frost free operation 


However efficient the insulation on the nitrogen fuel tank, there will inevitably be losses by evaporation to the atmosphere. If a vehicle is stored in a poorly ventilated space, there is some risk that leaking nitrogen depletes the level of oxygen in the air and causes asphyxiation. Since nitrogen is a colorless and odourless gas that already makes up 78 % of air, such a change is difficult to detect.

Cryogenic liquids are hazardous if spilled. Liquid nitrogen can cause frostbite and can make some materials extremely brittle.


The tanks must be designed to safety standards appropriate for a pressure vessel, such as ISO 11439.

The storage tank may be made of:

The fiber materials are considerably lighter than metals but generally more expensive. Metal tanks can withstand a large number of pressure cycles, but must be checked for corrosion periodically.

Emission output

Like other non-combustion energy storage technologies, a liquid nitrogen vehicle displaces the emission source from the vehicle’s tail pipe to the central electrical generating plant. Where emissions-free sources are available, net production of pollutants can be reduced. Emission control measures at a central generating plant may be more effective and less costly than treating the emissions of widely-dispersed vehicles.


Liquid nitrogen vehicles are comparable in many ways to electric vehicles, but use liquid nitrogen to store the energy instead of batteries. Their potential advantages over other vehicles include:

  • Much like electrical vehicles, liquid nitrogen vehicles would ultimately be powered through the electrical grid. Which makes it easier to focus on reducing pollution from one source, as opposed to the millions of vehicles on the road.
  • Transportation of the fuel would not be required due to drawing power off the electrical grid. This presents significant cost benefits. Pollution created during fuel transportation would be eliminated.
  • Lower maintenance costs
  • Liquid nitrogen tanks can be disposed of or recycled with less pollution than batteries.
  • Liquid nitrogen vehicles are unconstrained by the degradation problems associated with current battery systems.
  • The tank may be able to be refilled more often and in less time than batteries can be recharged, with re-fueling rates comparable to liquid fuels.


The principal disadvantage is the inefficient use of primary energy. Energy is used to liquify nitrogen, which in turn provides the energy to run the motor. Any conversion of energy between forms results in loss. For liquid nitrogen cars, energy is lost when electrical energy is converted to liquid nitrogen.

Liquid nitrogen is not yet available in public refueling stations.

Details of this work were presented in July 1997 at the Cryogenic Materials Conference in Portland, Oregon. Questions about this program can be addressed to:

Dr. Carlos Ordonez
Department of Physics
PO Box 311427
University of North Texas
Denton, Texas 76203-1427

Dr. Mitty Plummer
Dept. of Engineering Technology
PO Box 13198
University of North Texas
Denton, Texas 76203

Dr. Rick Reidy
Dept. of Materials Science
PO Box 305310
University of North Texas
Denton, Texas 76203-5310

Sourced and published by Henry Sapiecha 9th April 2010