Department of Physics invests $600,000 in helium recycling program

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Department of Physics invests $600,000 in helium recycling program

Dean Olson, Director of the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Lab, prepares to insert a liquid helium filler into a superconducting magnet apparatus at the Chemical and Life Sciences Laboratory A on February 10.

Dean Olson, Director of the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Lab, prepares to insert a liquid helium filler into a superconducting magnet apparatus at the Chemical and Life Sciences Laboratory A on February 10.

Dean Olson, Director of the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Lab, prepares to insert a liquid helium filler into a superconducting magnet apparatus at the Chemical and Life Sciences Laboratory A on February 10.

Dean Olson, Director of the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Lab, prepares to insert a liquid helium filler into a superconducting magnet apparatus at the Chemical and Life Sciences Laboratory A on February 10.

By Elyssa Kaufman

Each year, the University spends $200,000 on helium, After a summer of not having access to helium gas, student and faculty research was put on hold.

To counter this, the Department of Physics allocated $600,000 to buy two helium recovery compressors, additional storage tanks and facility infrastructure to move the helium, said Jerry Cook, facilities manager with the Department of Physics.

The helium recycling program is recovering about 60 percent of the helium on average and the goal is to recover around 95 percent, he added.

For a long time, helium was controlled by the government and was very cheap to buy, Cook said. In the ‘80s, when helium was deregulated, it became a commodity and the prices skyrocketed.

This program will help reduce the price, said Eric Thorsland, senior research engineer. 

“If we go the route we plan, we will reduce the cost of liquid helium from $15 a liter to somewhere in the $8-$9 a liter range,” Thorsland said. “Which means that money can then be spent on other components of research.” 

Currently, 52 individuals use helium for their research, Cook said. Professors set accounts up and then student researchers can purchase the helium for research. 

“If we don’t have the capabilities to provide helium, then these students and researchers are going to have to go different places, possibly to a more centralized larger university,” Cook said.

The helium recycling program, originally installed in 1961 when Loomis Laboratory of Physics was built, is working to conserve liquid helium. Thorsland said helium gas is finite and every bit lost is “that much less than we will have. In order to take control of our helium, we need to get it back as much as possible.”

A semi-trailer brings clean gas to the Loomis Laboratory basement while the compressor supplies pressure to the liquefier. The helium is then taken to different laboratories in the physics and chemistry departments.  

Because it is impossible to send the gas back to Loomis Lab, Thorsland built a contained system to capture the gas in a bag to compress the gas into transportable cylinders.

Program developers installed an underground pipe that goes from the Chemistry and Life Science Laboratory to the basement of Loomis Lab. Thorsland said this system has been in place for many years, but improvements have been made to make sure it is more efficient. 

“There is a push for the recycling because it is only available in certain deposits of natural gas, and not all natural gas deposits have helium in it,” said Ken Roemer, technician for the Department of Physics. “Helium is a fixed resource and the price has gone up a lot.”

“Without the gas, we lose the expensive equipment used for research and we would have to stop many avenues of research used in chemistry and physics,” Thorsland said.  

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