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Inside Intel's Secret Overclocking Lab: The Tools and Team Pushing CPUs to New Limits

LN2 in action

No, this is not Intel's lab. It's overclocker Joe Stepongzi at Computex. Don't try this at home. (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

While we're accustomed to seeing overclockers bathed in liquid nitrogen (LN2) smoke with no protective gear whatsoever, and even guys like competitive overclocker Joe Stepongzi pouring LN2 in their mouths and spewing it everywhere for kicks, that runs counter to just about every hazardous materials warning known to man that's associated with liquid nitrogen.

In contrast, Intel places strict emphasis on safety throughout its entire company, and those same principles obviously apply to the work it does in the overclocking lab. Stepongzi is probably shaking his head somewhere in disappointment, but that means Intel's employees have to wear the full OSHA-approved line of gear to pour liquid nitrogen. In fact, it took the lab three months just to get the equipment approved internally, and all LN2-pouring employees have to attend dedicated training sessions to attain all of the requisite certifications. 

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Intel's team spends a lot of time doing sub-zero overclocking (remember, they're binning and testing chips en masse), and here we can see its lineup of LN2 tanks. Interestingly, the small silver 50-liter LN2 tank to the right is Intel's first tank that it purchased specifically for overclocking (back in the Haswell/Ivy Bridge timeframe - 2010/2012). The tank no longer works and is in dire need of maintenance, but the team keeps it around for nostalgia's sake. Now the company rents the two big 180L silver tanks. They're replenished regularly. 

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

During heavy use, the knob on an LN2 tank will freeze up, potentially causing someone's hand to stick to it, so in keeping with the strict safety regulations, Intel has pairs of thermally-insulated gloves specifically used to turn the knob on the LN2 tanks. Given the rips, this glove has seen plenty of pours. Ragland tells us the company has to keep a fresh supply of LN2 and gloves on hand, not only for daily use but also for the company's overclockathons with motherboard vendors and top overclockers, which we'll cover shortly. 

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Here we can see Overclocking Performance Engineer Navya Pramod decked out in the Intel-approved gear for pouring and using liquid nitrogen, including an insulated smock, insulated gloves, and a full face shield. We're surprised there's no respirator involved, but we're told the lab is certified as having adequate ventilation for LN2 use. 

As you can imagine, the cumbersome safety gear makes pouring LN2 less accurate, so we're not sure how often they follow these rules on a daily basis. We'll pretend it's 100%. 

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

As expected, Intel's lab has plenty of LN2 flasks, and the model in the foreground is an Intel-certified vacuum flask. It has sandpaper on the outside of the flask to prevent slippage, various safety warnings, and a glass interior that shatters (loudly) even if the flask is tipped over on a table. The lab started out with six of these flasks, but now only has one remaining with an intact glass cover.

As we can see, the lab also has several Thermos containers that it uses regularly, but found its preferred solution from an unlikely source. 

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

The world's leading overclocker, Splave, brought several of these Thermos-brand containers, which he purchased at a local Target, to an Intel overclocking bootcamp. The lab crew now prefers these pots because of the broad base, big capacity, and "nice pour handle." As Ragland says, "we use what works best."

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Paul Alcorn

Paul Alcorn is the Deputy Managing Editor for Tom's Hardware US. He writes news and reviews on CPUs, storage and enterprise hardware.