Recycling helium in our labs

With the price of helium skyrocketing in recent years, Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences has taken an innovative approach to its nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) laboratory’s liquid helium needs.

Ian Vorster in the NMR facility
Facility Manager Ian Vorster in the NMR facility

NMR is an essential tool in chemistry research and the University’s state-of-the-art NMR facility is one of the largest in New Zealand.

Liquid helium is used as a cryogen, to cool the superconducting magnets in NMR spectrometers, and the lab consumes about 1300 litres of it a year. However, helium is a non-renewable resource. It’s usually generated as a by-product of natural gas mining and is very expensive—the price of helium has surged 500 per cent during the past 15 years.

With the facility due for an upgrade last year, NMR Facility Manager Ian Vorster decided to change tack, in line with the University’s commitment to sustainability, by installing a cryogenic recovery system.

“The already high cost of getting liquid helium to cool the magnets is exacerbated by the added shipping costs of getting anything to New Zealand,” he says. “So, I thought, ‘Let’s minimize the need for helium shipments altogether by installing our own helium recovery system.’

“The helium lost from the magnets is now re-captured and recycled back into the NMR systems. The installation of the system provides a revenue stream for us to offset any costs incurred for helium in the future. It also ensures a reliable, constant supply of cryogens to the University.”

This decision has proved far-sighted—with global supply chains disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, being self-sufficient in helium and liquid nitrogen has proved a real strength for the facility.

NMR forms a key part of the undergraduate Chemistry programme, and currently over 25 postgraduate students are conducting related research. The facility also supports the Immunoglycomics, Organic Synthesis, Organometallic Chemistry, and Natural Products chemistry research groups.

While the system was being designed, the team decided to also add a liquefaction and reliquefaction system for nitrogen. “We realised the amount of potential in the helium recovery system and thought that we could expand upon it by adding another valuable resource,” says Ian.

Martyn Coles, Head of the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, says the project is paying off. “We’re already seeing substantial financial benefits, and we’re very pleased to be able to take a more environmentally sustainable approach.”

More information about this project is available on the Cryogenic Society of America’s website.