Helium gas, aside from keeping party balloons aloft, has a variety of important uses, in part for the ability of its liquid form to maintain very cold temperatures. In fact, the element can stay in liquid form at absolute zero, -459.67˚F, making it ideal for certain research processes, such as maintaining samples and instruments at low temperatures. However, helium is a non-renewable resource—it cannot be made in the lab—and its gaseous form can escape the atmosphere and be lost to space. For these reasons, the world has faced a helium shortage for nearly two decades. In an effort to secure supplies, cut back on costs, and improve the sustainability of its research enterprise, the Eberly College of Science has invested in helium recapture systems that effectively allow scientists to reuse helium that would have previously been lost.
In 2006, the helium market experienced its first shortage, dubbed "Helium Shortage 1.0." In an effort to ensure the product supply would be secure, Moses Chan, professor emeritus of physics and Evan Pugh University Professor, set out to create Eberly’s first helium recapture system. Chan and Facilities Manager Robert “Bob” Holden visited Cornell University to better understand what building and maintaining such a system would entail. Just two years after their visit, the first unit was purchased and assembled in Osmond Lab. Since 2009, the Department of Physics has greatly increased capacity in Osmond Lab and added two more helium recapture systems in Davey Lab.
Just two months into 2022, helium markets were already experiencing "Helium Shortage 4.0," and the Department of Chemistry had set up their own helium recovery system in the Chemistry Building. Tapas Mal, Penn State NMR Facility director, had worked with various Penn State members since 2019 to acquire funding to purchase equipment and build the system to support their nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) imaging facilities. Although they have spent close to a million dollars to get this system operational, because of rising helium costs the team predicts that within four to five years the system will save enough money to recover the initial investment.
To learn more about this new recovery system, visit bit.ly/HeliumRecovery.