How Does Dry Ice Cleaning Work: The Science and Benefits

12 March 2024

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Dry ice cleaning isn’t magic. It’s a proven process for removing even the toughest dirt and damage from surfaces without the secondary residue cleanup or the downtime associated with other methods.

This post shows you how dry ice cleaning works. We answer questions such as, “What is dry ice blasting?” “What benefits does dry ice cleaning offer?” and “What applications does dry ice cleaning have?” By the end, you will know whether this cleaning method is suitable for your applications.

What is Dry Ice Cleaning?

Dry ice cleaning is a technique that uses solid carbon dioxide to remove dirt from a target surface. High-speed CO2 pellets hit substrates, vaporising on impact and lifting the dirt.

People use dry ice cleaning in commercial and industrial settings for cleaning equipment and heavy machinery. It is especially useful in car cleaning when you want to get rid of all the dirt. However, it is also valuable in other commercial applications and even at home.

How Does Dry Ice Cleaning Work?

Dry ice cleaning works for two main reasons: the extreme coldness of the ice itself and how it sublimates when it comes into contact with warm surfaces and the atmosphere.

Dry CO2 ice is -79°C, nearly four times colder than a regular home freezer. When it reaches this temperature, it takes on a pebble-like consistency that can lessen the heat contained in dirt on target objects, making it brittle and prone to flaking off.

The physical impact of the dry ice particles assists in this process. Pellets contact the target surface at high speed, physically knocking dirt out of the way, like a solid version of pressure washing. This action dislodges unwanted material from substrates and cleans them without leaving a residue.

However, the key to dry ice cleaning’s real power is sublimation – the process where solid CO2 transforms into gas instantly, skipping the liquid phase. When this happens, the volume of the CO2 pellets expands by a factor of 7000%, creating a miniature explosion that helps to remove even more dirt from surfaces.  

Various components are essential to run a dry ice cleaning machine safely and effectively. Therefore, you will need to bring these together before you start blasting.

Dry ice pellets are the primary ingredient for any dry ice cleaning system. These are made of solid carbon dioxide and must be kept at ultra-low temperatures to remain frozen.

Dry ice cleaning machines keep this ice in a container that maintains temperatures around -79°C. Keeping it cold prevents it from sublimating and escaping into the atmosphere.

The pressure of the ice particle flow comes from the potential energy in the air storage tank. When the machine is operating, pressurised air releases rapidly, providing the motive force to direct a fast-moving stream of particles onto target surfaces. Some machines propel dry ice faster than the speed of sound.

The high-pressure air tank and ice container connect to a hose system that technicians can use to direct cleaning action. Dry ice and pressurised air pass through the same nozzle, creating a powerful combination that cleans surfaces without a residue.

Some manufacturers offer machines that eliminate your reliance on dry ice and air canister suppliers. Dry ice pelletisers extract CO2 from the surrounding air and pressurise it, forcing it to become a solid. Internal components then cut the solid ice to the required size.

Finally, dry ice machines require proper indoor ventilation to function safely. Unfortunately, machines don’t offer this capability, so you will need to engineer it into the fabric of your workspace. Conventional ventilation systems or even open windows can provide enough air exchange to prevent carbon dioxide from reaching unsafe levels.

Dry Ice Blasting Diagram showing the Science behind the Equipment

Cleaning Various Surfaces with Dry Ice Blasting

What can be cleaned with dry ice blasting? You can use dry ice blasting to clean most substrates made of plastic, rubber and metal. You can also use it to clean wood, or even fabrics – just be careful of the pressure you use.

Dry ice blasting is less effective on hard-to-penetrate materials, such as cured paints, enamels, and elastic materials used in sealants. However, this limitation applies to most cleaning methods that remove contaminants from surfaces mechanically.

Dry ice blasting is popular because of its sheer range of applications. Here are some examples of how to use it:

  • Automotive dry ice cleaning, such as cleaning the underside of vehicles
  • Restoring buildings damaged by smoke and fire
  • Cleaning delicate electronics that you can’t clean with conventional methods or that chemicals might damage, such as engine bays
  • Cleaning dies, moulds, input equipment, electronics and other machinery in factories
  • Cleaning the electrical components of machinery affected by dust or grease
  • Cleansing conveyor belts and other apparatus that come into direct contact with food in food processing plants
  • Removing paint and adhesives from surfaces to speed the production process and improve product quality
  • Maintaining delicate aircraft components that water might damage
  • Cleaning turbine fins and generator internals in power generation settings
  • Removing grease and dirt from storage tanks and pipelines in the oil and gas sector
  • Preserving elements and features of historical buildings without harming their surfaces
  • Removing mould from the walls and surfaces of damp buildings
Ice Blasting Diagram showing Benefits.

Exploring the Benefits of Dry Ice Blasting

Dry ice blasting has many benefits compared to traditional cleaning methods. While it requires more elaborate equipment, the results often pay for themselves.

Here are some of the top advantages of using this cleaning method:

Less Down Time

Dry ice cleaning is more efficient and requires less equipment downtime than standard approaches. Once ice pellets contact the target surface, they sublimate, freezing and removing the dirt without residue.

Because of this, you don’t need to perform any secondary waste cleanup, such as removing cleaning fluids or rinsing sensitive equipment and waiting for it to dry before restarting. You also do not need to take apart components to conduct ice blasting, which means there is very minimal prep time required compared to traditional methods. Instead, you can return equipment to operation immediately.

More Cost-Effective

Some companies also find that dry ice blasting is more cost-effective. While the upfront costs of purchasing a dry ice blasting machine are higher than buying a mop and bucket, the long-run savings are substantial.

For instance, dry ice blasting reduces downtime, as described above. You can complete cleaning on equipment and immediately put it back into service in your factory or facility.

The method also eliminates the need to remove excess water or cleaning residues. Dry ice works by itself, reducing how much additional menial work technicians must do.

Use It For Almost Anything

Another benefit of dry ice cleaning is that you can use it for almost anything. It’s suitable for removing numerous contaminants, including mould, biofilms, smoke damage, paint, and grease.

Because of this, you don’t need to switch between cleaning methods for complex surfaces. Dry ice will remove all of it, whatever’s on there.

Quick To Apply

Dry ice cleaning is also quick to apply. Technicians can direct the CO2 ice to a surface and start cleaning it immediately. Simply direct the nozzle to the area that requires cleaning.

Less Elbow Grease

Dry ice cleaning also involves less elbow grease. The sublimation process does the heavy lifting, avoiding the need for scrubbing or brushing, and potentially damaging surfaces.

Environmentally Friendly

Dry ice cleaning is also more environmentally friendly than most cleaning approaches. Being frozen CO2, it is a natural, non-toxic substance. It doesn’t contain any surfactants, agents, or other harsh chemicals found in most industry cleaning products, eliminating the need to dispose of hazardous waste.


Finally, despite the “blasting” involved, CO2 dry ice cleaning is non-abrasive. As such, it does not rely on friction to remove dirt and deliver a polished finish. Instead, that occurs chemically due to the sublimation of the ice to a gas.

This feature of dry ice cleaning means you can use it for everything from the heaviest machinery down to the most sensitive circuits. Dry ice blasting provides cleaning action without the risk associated with most other methods.

Engine Bay being cleaned with Dry Ice Blasting

Unleashing the Potential of Dry Ice Blasting

So, if dry ice blasting is so effective, why doesn’t everyone use it?

The answer is the learning curve and expense associated with using the technology. While it can be an asset, it also requires the proper expertise.

The first hurdle is the high upfront cost. Anyone wanting to use dry ice cleaning must fork out up to £30,000 for a machine. This fee reduces the number of economical applications, which is why these machines are more common in large industrial firms than smaller companies or households.

There are also ongoing costs to consider. Dry ice machines require pellets to restock the dry ice and compressed air, which relies on well-functioning supply chains. The cleaning equipment requires additional energy to convert the inputs into a jet of super-cold cleaning pellets directed at surfaces, which can also increase bills.

Once cleaning begins, protecting workers becomes a priority. As dry ice sublimates and turns into carbon dioxide gas, it enters the surrounding atmosphere, changing its composition. That’s not a problem in well-ventilated spaces, but it can be an issue in enclosed rooms where atmospheric CO2 concentrations change rapidly. Therefore, ensure the surrounding area has proper ventilation if you use dry ice. If you cannot rotate the air, get technicians to wear oxygen face masks.

Also, be careful when transporting and storing dry ice. Keeping it at the proper temperature and sealing it prevents CO2 from leaking into the surrounding space. Transport drivers can sometimes experience asphyxia when moving pellets around as they sublimate into the air and take up more of the atmosphere than average.

Another consideration before using dry ice blasting should be personal protective equipment. Technicians need to wear various PPE to prevent work-related injuries. The top priority is to protect the hands and forearms. Anyone using dry ice machines should shield themselves with heavy-duty gloves designed to insulate against the cold. Wearing additional PPE, such as eyeglasses and a face protector, is also a good idea. These items prevent stray pellets from coming into contact with skin in the more sensitive facial region.

Experts recommend hearing protection too because of the noise levels dry ice blasting generates. Some machines can reach 115 decibels during cleaning, significantly above the 85-decibel threshold that puts people at risk of hearing loss. Therefore, wearing earbuds and earmuffs is essential. Combined, these can reduce the noise vibrations reaching the ears to safe levels, protecting workers from harm.

The Versatility of Cleaning with Dry Ice

Because dry ice relies on temperature and mechanical force to clean surfaces, you can do much more with it. Many businesses discover that it saves them enormous sums of money over time compared to other methods of removing excess grease, sludge, sealant and weld slag.

However, dry ice cleaning is more versatile than many companies realise. Organisations can use it for biofilm and organic material removal. The technique quickly eliminates the slimy layer of bacteria that often forms on surfaces in food processing facilities and healthcare settings, helping to keep spaces hygienic.

It is also helpful for rapid paint and coating stripping. Instead of removing old paint by hand, dry ice blasting removes it rapidly from a range of surfaces, including metal, concrete, and wood.

Dry ice car cleaning is another popular application mentioned above. The technique is better at removing ingrained dirt than other methods along the wheel arches and other areas prone to dirt.

Wrapping Up

Having read this post, you should better understand what dry ice blasting cleaning is, how it works, and its benefits. While it isn’t the perfect cleaning technique, it is one of the best and has the least downsides for car owners wanting the perfect clean. (It’s also good for businesses because it reduces their downtime).

You can use dry ice cleaning for most vehicle applications and on the majority of surfaces. It does require some upfront expenses and preparation, which is why you don’t want to do it yourself. But once you have a partner who can do it for you and you see the results, there’s no limit to how much you will want to use it.

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