No-Loss Liquid Hydrogen and LNG Systems (Zero Boil-Off)

Last December, we completed the analysis and design of an integrated cryogenic refrigeration system for the new 1.25 million gallon liquid hydrogen dewar at NASA Kennedy Space Center. The system enables zero boil-off long term storage for an electrical cost that is a fraction of the expense of replenishing hydrogen normally lost to venting. It also provides liquefaction and subcooling in support offloading, conditioning, transfer, and other critical operations. 

The capability to economically eliminate boil-off gas at such a large scale is a game changer for many liquefied natural gas (LNG), liquid hydrogen and other cryogen applications.  Benefits include elimination of storage losses, improved system performance, increased safety, and mitigation of unwanted emissions. However,  a systematic approach is required to insure an optimal solution. This post provides an overview of the process we use at Isotherm Energy.

 Source: NASA

Source: NASA

  Isotherm Energy Process

Isotherm Energy Process

Needs, Goals and Objectives

The first step is establishing the why (needs), the what (goals), and the how (objectives) for the system. There's a common tendency to overlook this step and dive into a point design based on past projects or preconceived configurations. The result generally ranges from suboptimal at best, to infeasible at worst.

Questions to ask at this point include:

  1.  Why is this system or capability needed? What is the overarching problem being solved?
  2.  What addresses the identified needs? Performance, cost, efficiency, compliance, or other goals?
  3.  How do we achieve the stated goals? Specific system objectives to be meet?

It's imperative that the documented answers to these questions are formally agreed upon by the key stakeholders. There must be a clear understanding of the needs,  goals and objectives at the start of the project. They form the compass that keeps the development process pointed in the right direction. A simple example to illustrate from the NASA hydrogen dewar project:

  • Need: Mitigation of hydrogen losses in a new 1.25 million gallon dewar
  • Goal: Long term storage with zero boil-off operation for 30 years or more
  • Objective: No-loss integrated refrigeration and storage system design

Top Level Requirements and Concept of Operation

With the needs, goals and objectives identified, top level system requirements can be defined. These top level requirements will provide the basis for lower level requirements, and must be verifiable (e.g. by analysis, test, inspection, or some other method). They must also be upwardly traceable to the objectives, and flow down to lower level requirements. Requirement definition and analysis is generally an iterative process, but the top level requirements should document the primary system drivers that often come from the key stakeholders as "non-negotiable". Without this step in the process, there is no definitive measure to assess whether the system solution is acceptable.

An equally important step is drafting a system concept of operation. What are the nominal operations for the system? What are the key duty cycles and time frames over which the operations occur? What off-nominal operations are anticipated for maintenance, repair, etc.? By thinking through the specifics of these and other operational questions, the range of feasible solutions begins to come into focus. Bypassing this important step can lead to over-designed or under-designed solutions that become more costly to correct later in the development cycle.

A simple example of one top level requirement and a brief concept of operations summary:

  • Requirement: The system shall be capable of removing 3000 W of thermal energy from the dewar continuously at 20 K. Rationale: Cooling capacity must be sufficient to overcome environmental heat leak and thermodynamic conditioning heat loads. Verification: by analysis and test.

  • Concept of Operation: During nominal operations, the refrigeration system maintains tank pressure without venting. For tanker off-loads, roadable tankers fill the large stationary dewar while the refrigeration system conditions the hydrogen to maintain tank pressure without venting. When rapid depressurization is needed, the refrigeration system cooling flow is reversed to provide maximum cooling in the ullage for liquefaction. During fueling operations, the refrigeration system is in bypass mode. After fueling (post launch), the refrigeration system may be used to re-liquefy hydrogen vapor and depressurize the dewar.

System Trades and Analysis

The next step is to identify system design options that are within the feasible trade space, and then analyze critical performance and economic parameters. There are many possible trades to consider, but the primary ones from a thermal performance standpoint can be broadly grouped as passive, hybrid, active, or some combination thereof. Note that many options may fit into more than one of these categories depending on the implementation.

Cryo Thermal Options.png

Passive techniques minimizing heat treat transfer into the system through structures, insulation, and penetrations are always important to explore first. These methods rely on good cryogenic design and material selection, and do not need any power input. Depending on the requirements and concept of operation timelines, an optimized passive thermal design may be sufficient to develop a no-loss system within the operational parameters of the application.

The hybrid category often relies on driving pressure differentials or power input for pumps, mixers and valves to provide cooling. The Joule-Thomson effect can be used in single stream cooling lines, or augmented with a heat exchanger and pump for cryogen flow on the warm side. Thermal de-stratification with any method that induces circulation of the liquid cryogen can prolong storage times by bringing the tank to equilibrium conditions (and avoiding venting). Manipulation of the boundary temperature can significantly reduce the effective environmental heat leak. This can be accomplished using a thermodynamic vent system during cryogen use, or by storing or flowing a complementary higher temperature cryogen in a jacket around the tank.

Finally, active cooling techniques require significant input power to make use of cryogenic refrigeration or cryocoolers to intercept or extract heat from the system. These refrigerators must interface with some form of heat exchanger, and perform in an integrated dynamic fashion for all required operations. These systems can also be used to subcool (densify) the cryogen for increased storage density and thermal capacity. The result is much longer storage times since significant environmental heat leak is absorbed before the cryogen reaches saturation conditions.

Design and Development

Based on the system trades and analysis performed in the previous step, each feasible design trade is ranked based upon key quantitative and qualitative criteria. Ranking methods and criteria selection should be established by consensus with the stakeholders prior to comparing design trades. This helps avoid the temptation to tweak the process in real time which can result in selection bias.

The highest ranked trade that meets all the requirements can then be selected for detailed system analysis and design. It's important during this step to document key assumptions, system interfaces, boundaries conditions, analysis approach, parametrics, optimizations, detailed results, etc. This step may require more than one iteration, or selection of the next highest ranked design trade, if the initially selected trade doesn't result in an acceptable solution.

When the design is deemed satisfactory, verification and testing is performed to validate that all the requirements are are met by the system. The project scope dictates the details of the verification and validation effort (e.g. verification of all analysis results; component and subsystem testing; and integrated system testing). The subsequent final design and system specification provides the information required to build, install and operate the system.

Optimal No-Loss Liquid Hydrogen and LNG Systems

Of course, this brief overview doesn't address all of the detailed considerations and customization needed for a specific liquid hydrogen or LNG application. However, following the overall approach helps to insure that the needs, goals and objectives are addressed in a systematic way that meets the requirements and is consistent with the concept of operation.

Furthermore, exploring the feasible trade space - and selecting the best design within it - also mitigates the risk of a sub-optimal design. Such an approach is key to economically minimizing or eliminating boil-off losses for  cryogenic systems.


Matt Moran is a Managing Partner at Isotherm Energy and has been developing power, thermal, and fluid systems since 1982.  He has a passion for the business and engineering of technology development and its integration into commercial products. Matt was the Sector Manager for Energy and Materials at NASA Glenn Research Center where he worked for over 30 years.  He has also co-founded or been a key contributor to five technology based start-ups; and provided R&D and engineering consulting to many industrial, government and research organizations.  More about Matt here