An ultra low temperature (ULT) freezer is a refrigerator that stores contents at between −40 to −86 °C (−40 to −123 °F). An ultra low temperature freezer is commonly referred to as a "minus 80 freezer" or a "negative 80 freezer", referring to the most common temperature standard. ULT freezers come in upright and chest freezer formats.
In contrast to short term sample storage at +4 to −20 °C (39 to −4 °F) by using standard refrigerators or freezers, many molecular biology or life science laboratories need long-term cryopreservation (including "cold chain" and/or "colder chain" infrastructures) for biological samples like DNA, RNA, proteins, cell extracts, or reagents. To reduce the risk of sample damage, these types of samples need extremely low temperatures of −80 to −86 °C (−112 to −123 °F). Mammalian cells are often stored in dewars containing liquid nitrogen at −196 °C (−320.8 °F). Cryogenic chest freezers can achieve temperatures down to −150 °C (−238 °F), and may include a liquid nitrogen backup.
Biological samples in ULT freezers are often stored in polymer tubes and microtubes, generally inside storage boxes that are commonly made of cardboard, polymer plastics or other materials. Microtubes are placed in storage boxes containing a grid of dividers that typically permit 64, 81, or 100 tubes to be stored. Standard ULT freezers can store approximately 350 to 450 microtube boxes.
In addition to life science applications, the tuna fishing industry also requires the use of ULT freezers.
ULT freezers are commonly fitted with alarm systems that will remotely alert designated parties in the case of a freezer failure.
Pull down time
The pull down time is defined as the necessary time to cool down the ULT freezer from ambient temperatures to the selected temperature of −80 to −86 °C (−112 to −123 °F). The time strongly depends on the type of insulation, the efficiency of the compressor system as well as the installed metal shelves within the freezer. At the start of the twenty-first century, ULT freezers were able to cool down within 3 to 5 hours. Warm up time is typically 1/8 °C per minute.
Due to the low temperature, ULT freezer consume high amounts of electric energy and hence are expensive to operate. In 2010, Stanford University had more than 2,000 ULT freezers, which used an estimated 40 billion BTUs of energy and cost the university $5.6 million annually. Newer ULT freezers consume less energy.
Depending on the volume of the freezer, the opening frequency of the users as well as the number of samples, the energy consumption starts from ca. 11 kWh/day and higher. To reduce the energy consumption, the insulation should be as efficient as possible. Additional inner doors reduce the loss of temperature when opening the main door. Icing within the ULT freezer should be reduced to a minimum. Modern ULT freezers employ variable speed drives for both the compressors and fans. This has reduced energy consumption a further 30% to typically 8.5 kWh/day.
ULT freezers that employ the cascade refrigeration (CR) system use up to 20 times the energy footprint of household fridges, and used to refrigerate with greenhouse gas fluids (typically hydrofluorocarbon R-508B). Modern ULT freezers employ HC (i.e. hydrocarbon) gas mixtures: typically, ethane and propane. This has also improved their efficiency by up to 30% over the conventional CFC or HFC gassed freezers.
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