Space exploration, farming, telecommunications, health care technology, car racing, even the Large Hadron Collider — the list of uses for cryogenics goes on and on, says Oak Park resident Laurie Huget, executive director of the Cryogenic Society of America.
Just don’t mention freezing dead bodies.
Huget said scientists know the importance cryogenics plays in modern science, but for the layman, the word still evokes thoughts of freezing dead bodies — sometimes just their severed heads — with the hope they will one day be reanimated once medical technology catches up. But that’s not cryogenics, Huget says.
“Cryogenics is not body freezing,” according to an official statement from the organization. “The Cryogenic Society of America does not endorse cryonics, the freezing of humans for future reanimation. The only connection between cryogenics and cryonics is the use of liquid nitrogen, a cryogen.”
Huget said in a recent interview that while her organization, which includes members such as ExxonMobil, Boeing, DuPont, and General Dynamics, among dozens of others, does not endorse the practice of cryonics, it also doesn’t demonize it.
“These are people who believe in something; I don’t believe it, and the people I work with say it is impossible, and I believe that,” she said.
Huget and her husband, Werner, have been operating the organization and a quarterly publication, titled Cold Facts International, out of Oak Park since the mid-1980s.
The couple moved to Oak Park in the early 1970s after meeting and graduating from Marquette University. Werner launched a career in advertising, working for a firm in downtown Chicago, but it didn’t take long before he and Laurie branched out and started their own business.
One of their earliest clients had a connection to the cryogenic community, and in short order the couple took over an ailing cryogenic organization and began producing a newsletter. It took years to build contacts and members, but the Cryogenic Society of America and Cold Facts International are a one-of-a-kind in the multimillion-dollar industry.
“We took it on because we had this computer and we had this mailing list,” Laurie Huget said. “Maybe we could send something out, and it was nothing much at all. It grew because Werner said, ‘Let’s have a product. Let’s do a newsletter.'”
The newsletter that started out as a couple of blue sheets of paper stapled together in the 1980s has grown to a 50-page glossy magazine with hundreds of readers. Laurie said the newsletter got advertisers right away because “nothing like it existed.”
The operation is currently run out of a small office at 218 Lake St., and although the couple’s story is certainly one to be told, you might be hard-pressed to get them to talk about anything other than cryogenic science.
“Superconductivity is a very complicated thing, but it’s also pretty cool [pun probably intended],” she said.
Werner said cryogenics not only are used for space exploration and satellite technology — yes, cryogenics will be used to help cool the James Webb space telescope, a $500 million telescope that will ultimately replace NASA’s Hubble telescope — but it’s also found in everyday technology.
“There are so many applications in daily life,” he said. “Every time you use your cell phone to make a call you’re benefitting from cryogenic technology because they use cryo-coolers to make the cell towers more efficient.”
He said the technology also is used to strengthen metal, noting that the treatment can increase the structure’s wear resistance. The application has been used to build stronger engines for race cars and brake rotors for police cars.
“When they finish the Indy 500, they tear the engine down. What they’ve found is that by controlling critical engine parts, they are able to run two races without tearing the engine down,” Werner said.
The Chicago Field Museum also uses cryogenic technology to freeze DNA specimens. Those specimens are shipped all over the world for research purposes, Laurie said. “There’s nothing like it in the world.”
Laurie’s tour of the museum’s cryogenic facility recently is just another in a long list of cryogenic operations she’s visited. She said it keeps the job interesting. Fermilab, NASA and the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, are among the other facilities where the Hugets have gotten a grand tour by the world’s top scientists.
Werner reminded that the technology is relatively new, not even 100 years old, and more is to come from its applications.
The couple is having a blast — an ice cold one — every step of the way.