cryocooler 2 img3
Customer story

Fabrum Solutions: Taking cryocooler technology to space and beyond

This article was published on Nov 16, 2018, 2:47 PM

Reading time: 4 minutes

Christchurch firm Fabrum Solutions has turned Callaghan Innovation-invented cryocooler technology into a burgeoning export industry. Even NASA is using it.

What's in this article

    At a glance

    • Older cryocoolers - refrigerators that operate at extremely low temperatures have been unreliable and costly. 
    • Callaghan Innovation (and previously IRL) developed a cryocooler that solved the problem, with Fabrum Solutions taking on commercialising the technology in 2014, with further support from us.
    • Fabrum Solutions has taken the technology a step further, finding a way to liquefy air on-demand. The company is on track to develop a multi-million-dollar export market, with the likes of NASA already a customer.

    A pretty cool technology, and technology transfer

    It’s a far cry from Hollywood movies freezing people to sleep for years on end. But Fabrum Solutions took on the challenge of commercialising a cryocooler, set to solve a multitude of industrial problems. 

    Fabrum Solutions: Very cool runnings

    [Hugh Reynolds]

    Hugh and I met at Canterbury University and we met racing motorcycles so that's where the relationship started through to about 2004 when we came up with this cunning plan to set up a business together and it was focused primarily around composite cryo-stats for the superconducting industry think thermos flask for keeping coffee hot so the composite cryostat is exactly that but it's designed to keep superconducting coils very cold at about minus 220 degrees Celsius part of the global entry into the superconducting market required us to exhibit at conferences Europe and America the keynote was that there were no industrialised cryocoolers available people were taking research Cryocoolers and trying to make them work in a industrial environment and they were failing.

    [Alan Caughley]

    Problem with cryocoolers is that when you cool things down to really low temperatures everything freezes out so all your lubricants all the vapour from your lubricants will freeze out into the cold side of the machine and block it up what Callaghan Innovation brought to this cryocooler project was world leading so what we worked on was the diaphragm system which uses a flexible membrane to keep the contaminants out of the cryocoolers working gas and it also allows a very long life for the cryocooler it's a world first and being able to operate efficiently at that temperatures and of course it’s got a long life at time as well

    [Hugh Reynolds]

    As we research the need for cryocoolers globally it surprisingly became apparent that the applications were much more vast than we expected artificial insemination, Pharmaceuticals, on-site medical oxygen, cryotherapy treatment, fertility treatment, environmental chambers where they’re replicating environments such as Mars or Moon through our most recent project which has been a development of cryocooler specifically for NASA for a Mars Lander project that they’re working on. receiving an email with an NASA tag on the bottom of it, it's outside the normal mundane emails you'll receive and then to read within that they're asking for your input into a project involving the Mars Lander it was pretty exciting,

    We believe for our technology alone there's at least 100 million dollars a year of sales. I think we're fortunate in New Zealand that we have a government that's reasonably motivated in funding R&D, as well as the likes of the Callaghan Innovations with a focus clearly on creating new technology.

    Essentially a fancy refrigerator, a cryocooler turns any atmospheric or natural gas into a liquid at very low, or cryogenic, temperatures - from -170º C to -250º C. However, old-style cryocoolers were unreliable; they required regular servicing, and usually failed completely after a few years given that over time oil vapour from the moving parts would get into the cooler’s helium working gas. 

    With this in mind, former Crown Research Institute Industrial Research Limited (IRL) - now part of Callaghan Innovation - developed a cryocooler with a compressor that is completely sealed. This means the contaminants stay out of the helium working space and the cryocooler can keep running indefinitely.

    Then in 2014, Fabrum Solutions took on the task of commercialising the technology, its first focus on manufacturing cryocoolers that could produce on-site, on-demand liquid nitrogen. From there, they’ve gone on to help develop the first liquid air plant. 

    Running side by side with Callaghan Innovation

    Fabrum Solutions puts around 30 per cent of its turnover back into R&D and has partnered with Callaghan Innovation at each step of its journey, Co-founder Christopher Boyle says. 

    Not only did some of the original staff move over to the company as part of the technology transfer, Callaghan Innovation has continued to support Fabrum with a number of R&D grants and funding.

    Alan Caughley, the scientist behind the original breakthrough, these days Team Leader Mechanical Engineering at Callaghan Innovation, worked with Fabrum throughout the commercialisation project.

    “We were running really hard as a combined team for several years, with our engineering team helping them put the early prototypes into the field,” Caughley says.

    “This has been an amazingly successful technology transfer. Creating a mid-range refrigerator that produces a useful amount of liquid has been something of a holy grail.”

    Endless applications, huge market potential

    The market for Fabrum is huge, with the Kiwi invention aiming to take a portion of the annual $2.4 billion international market for cryocoolers, in the process potentially creating a new $100 million export industry for New Zealand.  

    To help achieve this, Fabrum formed a joint venture with French cryogenic engineering company Absolut System, called AFCryo, and has capacity to manufacture around 200 units a year at its purpose-built Christchurch facility.

    There are endless applications for the cryocoolers, everything from the space race to fertility treatment. In fact, NASA is already using one of its cryocoolers to freeze carbon dioxide as part of the Mars Lander project. 

    “There are a whole range of uses we never appreciated when we started on this journey,” Boyle says.

    Some of the applications Fabrum has never even thought of. For example, the likes of firefighters and military personnel can carry a backpack of liquid air allowing them to work in hazardous situations for longer, given the evaporation of the liquid provides a cooling effect in the incredibly hot suits.

    As well, cryocoolers also allow for on-demand liquid oxygen wherever it’s required, from air ambulances to remote military bases. They are also used for producing liquid nitrogen to preserve semen as part of animal artificial insemination programmes and human fertility treatment.

    It also boasts environmental credentials, with the cryocoolers able to re-liquify the methane that is vented off LNG when it is transported, especially helpful as Europe moves towards zero emissions of methane.

    Related Products

    Advanced Engineering and Materials
    Read more
    R&D Tax Incentive
    Read more

    You might also be interested in ...

    Media release
    11 Jun 2024 Pacific Channel joins Callaghan Innovation's Deep Tech Incubator programme
    Read more
    Media release
    03 Jun 2024 Distinguished Scientist recognised in King’s Birthday Honours
    Read more
    Media release
    18 Mar 2024 Daisy Lab and ice-cream icon taste test dairy-identical dessert
    Read more
    Popular Topics