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FAYETTEVILLE -- The purchase of a liquid helium recovery system at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville aims to help scientists avoid the rising prices and uncertain availability of a key substance used in research equipment, a UA professor said.

"It's really pretty much irreplaceable," said Wesley Stites, chairman of UA's chemistry and biochemistry department.

But about two years ago, scientists worldwide faced what Stites called a "supply interruption" because of political action taken in the Middle East affecting exports from Qatar, a major helium supplier.

Stites said it amounted to a rationing of helium.

"That really kind of made me think," Stites said. UA has long-term contracts with suppliers, but "that still doesn't do any good if 25% of the supply has gone," he said.

"That's when we really started to consider helium recovery. Before, it wasn't cost-effective," Stites said.

Liquid helium acts as a necessary coolant for instruments essential to what's known as nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, said Stites. The technique, similar to that used in hospital MRI machines, allows researchers to determine the composition and chemical connections of a substance down to the molecular level, Stites said.

The name can be misleading, as the technique involves strong magnetic fields -- Stites warned a reporter to not bring electronics within a few feet of the instruments to avoid damaging them -- rather than radioactivity.

The strong magnetic fields are created by superconducting magnets, which need to be kept at very cold temperatures. In atmospheric pressure, liquid helium is about 4 degrees on the Kelvin scale, or approximately -452 degrees Fahrenheit.

From a practical standpoint, "liquid helium gets you down at temperatures that really nothing else can do," Stites said.

It's use inside instruments means that heat gets transferred to the helium, requiring a need to vent helium gas as the liquid, bit by bit, boils off.

"Until recently, we and pretty much everybody in the world would just let the helium boil off in the atmosphere," said Stites.

With supplies "precarious," Stites said the university spent about $250,000 on equipment and installation of the recovery system, now in place for about a year. Email messages between supplier Cryomech, Inc. and UA provided by Stites indicated a $203,320 purchase price for specialized equipment. Additional costs included the installation of pipes and various fittings, valves and other equipment, as well as tax on the purchases, Stites said.

UA had been spending about $40,000 yearly on liquid helium before installing the system, Stites said. He said he expects to system to recover its costs in about seven to eight years at current helium prices.

The helium marketplace remains unsteady, however.

"In general, prices have gone up a lot, especially in the last nine months or so," said Phil Kornbluth, a helium consultant. He said prices vary by region and declined to give an estimate on current costs.

"It really is pretty local. It varies by quantity, it varies by contract-term price," Kornbluth said. But, he added, "the prices today compared to a couple of years ago, they'd probably be something in the range of 50 to 100 percent higher." Kornbluth said he has never worked with UA.

Major uses of helium are for semiconductor manufacturing, MRI machines used in hospitals and scientific research, Stites said.

Increasing demand comes about in part because of new uses and also greater demand, such as for MRI medical equipment.

"As the world gets richer, demand for product goes up," Stites said.

Yet it is not commonplace for universities to install recovery systems, said Christopher Rithner, director of Colorado State University's Central Instrument Facility and an advocate for taking such steps to recover liquid helium.

Rithner, who has written about helium, said that while "there's only so much helium," it has been complicated market forces that decreased its availability to researchers.

"It is not, in fact, true to say that we ran out of helium," Rithner said. "But instead, what happened is that suppliers were unable to produce enough helium for one reason or another."

He said there remains uncertainty about helium supplies.

"What is likely true is that we are going to face diminishing levels, to some extent, of helium production," Rithner said.

Glenn S. Ruskin, vice president for external affairs and communications with the American Chemical Society, a group that describes itself as the world's largest scientific society, in a statement said that, along with other scientists, the nonprofit organization has published a report and held a webinar about the importance of helium as a scientific commodity.

"ACS, along with its sister societies, is also working with U.S. federal agencies and the research community to increase awareness and develop strategies to deal with the shortage," Ruskin said.

For non-scientists, Rithner said concerns about supplies need not worry those looking to purchase a helium balloon as a gift. They make up only a very small portion of helium use, perhaps one or two percent, Rithner said.

"Party balloons for your child? Heck, go down and buy them, have fun," Rithner said. With prices rising, however, "it's just going to cost you more."

NW News on 06/16/2019

Print Headline: System makes helium worth the cost of recovery

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