Tables for
Volume F
Crystallography of biological macromolecules
Edited by E. Arnold, D. M. Himmel and M. G. Rossmann

International Tables for Crystallography (2012). Vol. F, ch. 10.1, p. 242   | 1 | 2 |

Section Cooling rates

H. Hopea* and S. Parkinb

aDepartment of Chemistry, University of California, Davis, One Shields Ave, Davis, CA 95616–5295, USA, and bDepartment of Chemistry, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, USA
Correspondence e-mail: Cooling rates

| top | pdf |

The time dependence of nucleation probability suggests that faster is safer. Although few systematic data are available, it is commonly assumed that crystal cooling should be as rapid as possible. Studies related to cryopreservation of biological samples for electron microscopy provide a number of measurements of cooling rates in various coolants, but it is difficult to extract information directly relevant to cryocrystallography. From a practical point of view, the coolants to be considered are liquid N2 and liquid propane (and, to a lesser extent, liquid ethane). Thermal conductivities for small-molecule compounds in liquid form tend to be of similar magnitude – around 1.5 × 10−5 W m−1 K−1. N2 boils at 77 K; propane remains liquid between 83 and 228 K. It is often thought that the gas layer that can form around an object dipped in liquid N2 as a result of the Leidenfrost effect (Leidenfrost, 1756[link]) makes liquid N2 less effective as a coolant than liquid propane, which is much less likely to form bubbles. However, from model calculations, Bald (1984[link]) suggested that this Leidenfrost insulation problem in liquid N2 would not be significant in the cooling of small objects of low thermal conductivity, because there is not enough heat transport to the surface to maintain the gas layer. He also concluded that liquid N2 could potentially yield the highest cooling rate among commonly used coolants, but in a review of plunge-cooling methods, Ryan (1992[link]) gives preference to liquid ethane. Walker et al. (1998[link]) measured the cooling rates in N2 gas (100 K), liquid N2 (77 K) and liquid propane (100 K) of a bare thermocouple and of a thermocouple coated with RTV silicone cement. The thermocouples were made from 0.125-mm wire and the coating was about 0.20–0.25 mm thick. With the gas stream, cooling of the centres of the samples from 295 to 140 K took 0.8 and 2 s, respectively; with liquid N2 the times were 0.15 and 0.6 s, and with liquid propane they were 0.15–0.18 and 1.2 s (time reproducibility is to within ±10%). Given the simplicity of liquid-N2 immersion, there seems little reason to choose the more complicated and more hazardous liquid-propane technique. As the field of low-temperature biocrystallography has matured, liquid-propane methods have all but died out, and liquid-N2 immersion is now by far the most commonly employed method.


Bald, W. B. (1984). The relative efficiency of cryogenic fluids used in the rapid quench cooling of biological samples. J. Microsc. 134, 261–270.
Leidenfrost, J. G. (1756). De aquae communis nonnullis qualitatibus tractatus. Duisburg, Germany.
Ryan, K. P. (1992). Cryofixation of tissues for electron microscopy: a review of plunge cooling methods. Scanning Microsc. 6, 715–743.
Walker, L. J., Moreno, P. O. & Hope, H. (1998). Cryocrystallography: effect of cooling medium on sample cooling rate. J. Appl. Cryst. 31, 954–956.

to end of page
to top of page