Liquid Nitrogen in the Lab

A thermos with some bubbling liquid nitrogen at the bottom.
A thermos with some bubbling liquid nitrogen at the bottom.

Liquid nitrogen is used pretty much everyday by someone in my lab.

Liquid nitrogen is an extremely cold liquid coming in at close to -200°C (-330°F).

Nitrogen’s natural phase is a gas. Its a fairly common gas to, making up 78% of the Earth’s air.

When it nitrogen is condensed as a liquid it is essentially always at boiling temperature.

I tried to capture the vapor coming off the bubbling liquid nitrogen in the picture above, but its difficult to convey what liquid nitrogen is like in a photo.

Liquid nitrogen looks exactly like boiling water. If you put liquid nitrogen into a pot it would look just like a boiling pot of water ready for spaghetti to be added.

But liquid nitrogen is not boiling water. It won’t scald your hand if you touch it.

Liquid nitrogen is the coldest thing you will ever touch and can instantly freeze burn your hand.

Even things that come out of liquid nitrogen are painful to touch with you hands. I can’t do it for more than a second.

Using gloves to handle liquid nitrogen has another problem attached to it.

When you wear gloves a natural layer of sweat and oil occurs between your hand and the inside of the glove.

If your gloved hand is in the liquid nitrogen for too long, the sweat freezes.

That’s just ice though. It’s happened to me plenty of times. I just yank my hand out of the nitrogen and my bodyheat melts the ice back into sweat right away.

So if its so dangerous, why do we use it in the lab?

Liquid nitrogen is useful because it stops all biological activity. That’s why its dangerous and why its useful at the same time.

When working with a dead specimen its best to prevent bacterial decay. Bacteria can’t survive at liquid nitrogen temperatures, so its used for that.

Liquid nitrogen is also used to isolate RNA from a specimen.

Every cell has RNA inside of it, but RNA is also what many viruses are made out of.

Cells quickly learn to distinguish RNA inside the cell as good and RNA outside of the cell as bad virus RNA.

Cells have defense mechanisms to destroy RNA called RNases.

RNases can’t work at liquid nitrogen temperatures though!

I was using liquid nitrogen for a third purpose today, just to quickly freeze some worms.

More on why I need to freeze worms another day!

-Mister Ed

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