Helium Recovery Making a Difference

Helium, a critical component of cutting edge research at Pitt, is a nonrenewable resource that is usually used once and then expelled into the atmosphere, but not at Pitt. The Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences manages a Helium Recovery Program that re-liquefies Helium for reuse in University research experiments.

Why is Helium Recovery Needed?

Helium is a critical component of cutting edge research. In its liquid form, which boils at 4 Kelvin (or negative 452 Fahrenheit), helium is used to ensure superconductivity for high end scientific instrumentation in chemistry, biology, and medicine including magnetic resonance imagers (MRIs) and nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers (NMRs), as well as for state of the art solid state research in physics and materials science. Helium is usually used in a once-through process where compressed liquid helium is inserted into a cryostat and gaseous helium, created as the liquid boils, is expelled into the atmosphere. Helium is entirely nonrenewable, produced as a byproduct of certain mining operations, and once it is released it quickly escapes the Earth’s atmosphere.

The cost of research-grade helium has increased up to 400% from 2010 to 2013 in some regions since the federal government has started the process of selling off the Federal Helium Reserve. To help minimize the impact on its researchers, the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh in partnership with the NSF invested in the creation of a helium recovery program and associated cost recovery center. Pitt Cryogenics is able to provide the University community with research-grade recycled helium at rates greatly reduced from the virgin helium prices provided by outside vendors. Construction of the facility was completed in January of 2015, and the first recovered helium was supplied to the Department of Physics in March.

What is Helium Recovery?

Helium recovery is the process of re-liquefying Helium gas that is currently being used in research experiments. This process allows for experiments to be run that might not have otherwise been affordable, says Patrick Irvin, faculty member in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. The reuse of Helium not only saves University dollars, but also aids in achieving the goals of the Pitt Sustainability Plan.

Helium Recovery Program Expansion

The system has been extended from the Physics Department in Allen Hall, Old Engineering Hall, and Thaw Hall to include the Chevron Chemistry Building. With the new addition, the Helium Recovery program, operated by the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, recovers, cleans, and reuses a large percentage of the helium used in Dietrich School research. With helium being in short supply across the country, this program gives Pitt an advantage in research that not many Universities have.

Facts about Pitt’s Helium Recovery System

  • Chevron returns approximately 64 cubic feet of helium per hour with rare occurrences of approximately 150 CF/Hr
  • The Mid Campus Complex (MCC) returns approximately 220 CF/Hr with rare occurrences of up to 800 CF/Hr
  • The MCC system includes a 1,000 CF atmospheric collection bag with 2 evacuation compressors operating at up to 35 CF/Min
  • MCC storage room can accommodate 36,000 CF of pressurized helium gas
  • MCC liquefaction facility produces up to 47L/Hr and holds up to 500L in the mother dewar and 200L of stored cryogenic helium not including the fill station dewar

Other links relating to Pitt’s Helium Recovery