New system will capture and reuse scarce helium for critical lab instruments

As helium becomes increasingly expensive and difficult to obtain, a new recovery system will help ensure a reliable supply of the element needed for powerful research instruments

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Glenn Millhauser (Photo by Shaneen Britton Acevedo)
Glenn Millhauser, a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is establishing a new and important kind of sustainability at UC Santa Cruz: helium sustainability. Millhauser’s lab, like many other labs in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, needs a reliable supply of liquid helium for the instruments that are crucial to his research. But he’s found that getting liquid helium when you need it is becoming increasingly difficult.

Now, thanks to a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Millhauser has procured equipment that will allow roughly 90% of the helium used in these critical instruments to be captured and reused.

A nonrenewable by-product of petroleum and natural gas drilling, helium has a wide range of uses. Liquid helium is an essential coolant for powerful superconducting magnets, such as those used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines. Millhauser and other UCSC researchers use a related technique called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, which also relies on superconducting magnets and liquid helium.

For nearly three decades, Millhauser has been researching the structural and dynamic properties of proteins to better understand human biology and diseases. Currently, he focuses on the structure of prion proteins and their role in neurodegenerative diseases such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. The instruments in UCSC’s NMR Facility, which Millhauser directs, enable his team to study the shapes of prions and other proteins.

NMR and MRI machines need a regular supply of liquid helium to keep them running. With a temperature of about -450 degrees Fahrenheit, liquid helium keeps the coils of the magnets so cold that electrons can flow without any resistance (called superconductivity). If the coils warm up, the electrons won’t flow freely and the magnet will stop working.

The liquid helium coolant is steadily lost through evaporation and has to be replaced on a regular basis. The supply of helium is variable, however, and international tensions and changes in fossil fuel energy demands have driven up the cost and decreased availability. The situation is now so dire that all helium deliveries to UC campuses are managed by purchasing agents in the UC Office of the President.

In early 2019, when Millhauser's helium supplier offered a delivery date that was months away, he and NMR Facility Manager Jack Lee realized that ongoing research projects using NMR instruments were in jeopardy. "It was alarming," he said. Some labs at other universities had to shut off their NMR instruments altogether, which can damage the magnets and oftens renders the machine unuseable in the future.

Millhauser decided to request funds from the NIH for a helium recovery system. A few weeks later, he learned that his request had led to the initiation of a targeted grant supplement program from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the NIH, which ultimately provided dozens of universities and research institutions across the country with funding for helium recovery systems.

Under Lee’s guidance, equipment for the recovery system will soon be installed in the NMR Facility alongside the instruments used by UCSC researchers. "It will look like plumbing—tubing, tanks, and pumps," Millhauser said. As the helium inside the machine transitions from a liquid to a gas, tubes will collect and move the helium gas into a separate storage tank. A compressor will then liquify the helium, allowing it to be stored and used to replenish the magnets as needed.

Once this recovery system is installed, UCSC likely won't need to place another order for liquid helium for several years, Millhauser said. The reduced need for external helium supplies also mean the costs to run the lab and its experiments are likely to remain stable.

Millhauser sees the new equipment as one way that the university will become less reliant on the petroleum industry and more self-sufficient.

"With the addition of this helium recovery system, we have greater independence from the energy industry and greater stability for our ongoing, federally funded research," he said.