Classic Snacks Image Gallery
Classic Snacks Image Gallery

"Astronaut ice cream," the classic freeze-dried treat for kids. See more pictures of classic snacks.

Introduction to How Freeze-Drying Works

­ Freeze-drying, or lyophilization, is like "suspended animation" for food. You can store a freeze-dried meal for years and years, and then, when you're finally ready to eat it, you can completely revitalize it with a little hot water. Even after all those years, the taste and texture will be pretty much the same. That's some trick!

In this article, we'll explore the basic idea behind freeze-drying, and we'll look at the different steps involved in the process. We'll also see how freeze drying is different from ordinary dehydration, and we'll find out about some of its important applications.

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A freeze-dried meal of spaghetti and meatballs, designed for campers: On the left is the dried version; on the right is the rehydrated version.

Why Freeze-Dry?

The basic idea of freeze-drying is to completely remove water from some material, such as food, while leaving the basic structure and composition of the material intact. There are two reasons someone might want to do this with food:

  • Removing water keeps food from spoiling for a long period of time. Food spoils when microorganisms, such as bacteria, feed on the matter and decompose it. Bacteria may release chemicals that cause disease, or they may just release chemicals that make food taste bad. Additionally, naturally occurring enzymes in food can react with oxygen to cause spoiling and ripening. Like people, microorganisms need water to survive, so if you remove water from food, it won't spoil. Enzymes also need water to react with food, so dehydrating food will also stop ripening.
  • Freeze-drying significantly reduces the total weight of the food. Most food is largely made up of water (many fruits are more than 80 to 90 percent water, in fact). Removing this water makes the food a lot lighter, which means it's easier to transport. The military and camping supply companies freeze-dry foods to make them easier for one person to carry. NASA has also freeze-dried foods for the cramped quarters onboard spacecraft.

People also use freeze-drying to preserve other sorts of material, such as pharmaceuticals. Many pharmaceuticals will degrade pretty quickly when exposed to water and air, for the same basic reason that food degrades. Chemists can greatly extend pharmaceutical shelf life by freeze-drying the material and storing it in a container free of oxygen and water. Similarly, research scientists may use freeze-drying to preserve biological samples for long periods of time. Freeze-dried biological samples are also big in the florist world, oddly enough. Freeze-dried roses are growing in popularity as wedding decorations. The freeze-drying process has also been used to restore water-damaged materials, such as rare and valuable manuscripts.

Photo courtesy NASA Freeze-dried foods have been a staple onboard many of NASA's space missions.

It's pretty simple to dry food, drugs and just about any other biological material. Set it out in a hot, arid area, and the liquid water inside will evaporate: The heat gives the water molecules enough energy to "break free" of the liquid and become gas particles. Then you seal it in a container, and it stays dry. This is how manufacturers make dehydrated meals like powdered soup and baking mixes.

There are two big problems with this approach. First, it's difficult to remove water completely using evaporation because most of the water isn't directly exposed to air. Generally, dehydrating food in this way only removes 90 to 95 percent of the water, which will certainly slow down bacteria and enzyme activity, but won't stop it completely.

Secondly, the heat involved in the evaporation process significantly changes the shape, texture and composition of the material, in the same way that heat in an oven changes food. Heat energy facilitates chemical reactions in the food that change its overall form, taste, smell or appearance. This is the fundamental purpose of cooking. These changes can be good, if they make the food taste better (or taste good in a different way), but if you're drying something so you can revitalize it later, the process compromises quality somewhat.

The basic idea of freeze-drying is to "lock in" the composition and structure of the material by drying it without applying the heat necessary for the evaporation process. Instead, the freeze-drying process converts solid water -- ice -- directly into water vapor, skipping the liquid phase entirely. In the next section, we'll find out how freeze-drying machines pull this off.

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The Process

The fundamental principle in freeze-drying is sublimation, the shift from a solid directly into a gas. Just like evaporation, sublimation occurs when a molecule gains enough energy to break free from the molecules around it. Water will sublime from a solid (ice) to a gas (vapor) when the molecules have enough energy to break free but the conditions aren't right for a liquid to form.

There are two major factors that determine what phase (solid, liquid or gas) a substance will take: heat and atmospheric pressure. For a substance to take any particular phase, the temperature and pressure must be within a certain range. Without these conditions, that phase of the substance can't exist. The chart below shows the necessary pressure and temperature values of different phases of water.

You can see from the chart that water can take a liquid form at sea level (where pressure is equal to 1 atm) if the temperature is in between the sea level freezing point (32 degrees Fahrenheit or 0 degrees Celsius) and the sea level boiling point (212 F or 100 C). But if you increase the temperature above 32 F while keeping the atmospheric pressure below .06 atmospheres (ATM), the water is warm enough to thaw, but there isn't enough pressure for a liquid to form. It becomes a gas.

This is exactly what a freeze-drying machine does. A typical machine consists of a freeze-drying chamber with several shelves attached to heating units, a freezing coil connected to a refrigerator compressor, and a vacuum pump.

A simplified freeze-drying machine

With most machines, you place the material to be preserved onto the shelves when it is still unfrozen. When you seal the chamber and begin the process, the machine runs the compressors to lower the temperature in the chamber. The material is frozen solid, which separates the water from everything around it, on a molecular level, even though the water is still present.

Next, the machine turns on the vacuum pump to force air out of the chamber, lowering the atmospheric pressure below .06 ATM. The heating units apply a small amount of heat to the shelves, causing the ice to change phase. Since the pressure is so low, the ice turns directly into water vapor. The water vapor flows out of the freeze-drying chamber, past the freezing coil. The water vapor condenses onto the freezing coil in solid ice form, in the same way water condenses as frost on a cold day. (See How Refrigerators Work for more information on condensers and refrigeration coils.)

This continues for many hours (even days) while the material gradually dries out. The process takes so long because overheating the material can significantly change the composition and structure. Additionally, accelerating the sublimation process could produce more water vapor in a period of time then the pumping system can remove from the chamber. This could rehydrate the material somewhat, degrading its quality.

Once the material is dried sufficiently, it's sealed in a moisture-free package, often with an oxygen-absorbing material. As long as the package is secure, the material can sit on a shelf for years and years without degrading, until it's restored to its original form with a bit of water (a very small amount of moisture remains, so the material will eventually spoil). If everything works correctly, the material will go through the entire process almost completely unscathed!

For more information on freeze-drying, including its history and applications, check out the links on the next page.