Cryonics Wants To Be Big

bylsparrish9y5th Jul 2010192 comments


Cryonics scales very well. People who argue from the perspective that cryonics is costly are probably not aware of this fact. Even assuming you needed to come up with the lump sum all at once rather than steadily pay into life insurance, the fact is that most people would be able to afford it if most people wanted it. There are some basic physical reasons why this is the case.

So long as you keep the shape constant, for any given container the surface area is based on a square law while the volume is calculated as a cube law. For example with a simple cube shaped object, one side squared times 6 is the surface area; one side cubed is the volume. Spheres, domes, and cylinders are just more efficient variants on this theme. For any constant shape, if volume is multiplied by 1000, surface area only goes up by 100 times.

Surface area is where heat gains entry. Thus if you have a huge container holding cryogenic goods (humans in this case) it costs less per unit volume (human) than is the case with a smaller container that is equally well insulated. A way to understand why this works is to realize that you only have to insulate and cool the outside edge -- the inside does not collect any new heat. In short, by multiplying by a thousand patients, you can have a tenth of the thermal transfer to overcome per patient with no change in r-value.

But you aren't limited to using equal thickness of insulation. You can use thicker insulation, but get a much smaller proportional effect on total surface area when you use bigger container volumes. Imagine the difference between a marble sized freezer and a house-sized freezer. What happens when you add an extra foot of insulation to the surface of each? Surface area is impacted much as diameter is -- i.e. more significantly in the case of the smaller freezer than the larger one. The outer edge of the insulation is where it begins collecting heat. With a truly gigantic freezer, you could add an entire meter (or more) of insulation without it having a significant proportional impact on surface area, compared to how much surface area it already has. (This is one reason cheaper materials can be used to construct large tanks -- they can be applied in thicker layers.)

Another factor to take into account is that liquid nitrogen, the super-cheap coolant used by cryonics facilities around the world, is vastly cheaper (more than a factor of 10) when purchased in huge quantities of several tons. The scaling factors for storage tanks and high-capacity tanker trucks are a big part of the reason for this. CI has used bulk purchasing as a mechanism for getting their prices down to $100 per patient per year for their newer tanks. They are actually storing 3,000 gallons of the stuff and using it slowly over time, which implies there is a boiloff rate associated with the 3,000 gallon tank in addition to the tanks.

The conclusion I get from this is that there is a very strong self-interested case (as well as the altruistic case) to be made for the promotion of megascale cryonics towards the mainstream, as opposed to small independently run units for a few of us die-hard futurists. People who say they won't sign up for cost reasons may actually (if they are sincere) be reachable at a later date. To deal with such people's objections and make sure they remain reachable, it might be smart to get them to agree with some particular hypothetical price point at which they would feel it is justified. In large enough quantities, it is conceivable that indefinite storage costs would be as low as $50 per person, or 50 cents per year.

That is much cheaper than saving a life any other way. Of course there's still the risk that it might not work. However, given a sufficient chance of it working it could still be morally superior to other life saving strategies that cost more money. It also has inherent ecological advantages over other forms of life-saving in that it temporarily reduces the active population, giving the environment a chance to recover and green tech more time to take hold so that they can be supported sustainably and comfortably. And we might consider the advent of life-health extension in the future to be a reason to think  it a qualitatively better form of life-saving.

Note: This article only looks directly at cooling energy costs; construction and ongoing maintenance do not necessarily scale as dramatically. The same goes for stabilization (which I view as a separate though indispensable enterprise). Both of these do have obvious scaling factors however. Other issues to consider are defense and reliability. Given the large storage mass involved, preventing temperature fluctuations without being at the exact boiling temperature of LN2 is feasible; it could be both highly failsafe and use the ideal cryonics temperature of -135C rather than the -196C that LN2 boiloff as a temperature regulation mechanism requires. Feel free to raise further issues in the comments.