Physics faculty member Patrick Irvin pictured with the helium recovery system. Photo: Patrick Irvin

Helium, required in experiments for advanced physics where very low temperatures are needed, is a precious commodity. Although it is a byproduct of natural gas well operations, not many sources actively harvest it – and it is therefore becoming more and more expensive. The price has doubled over the last decade, according to some estimates.

But some labs, seeing the trend and noting how thousands of dollars of the precious gas can quickly deplete a department’s budget, have instituted ways to conserve and recycle the gas with advanced systems. One of the latest is the University of Pittsburgh, which has been saving enough on its helium costs from a recovery system within the Department of Physics and Astronomy that the $1 million Linde Engineering machine is expected to soon have paid for itself.

The system is expected to pay for itself in 10 years, and is recovering more than 90 percent of the gas used, by collecting, compressing, and liquefying it for re-use over the last two years, said school officials.

“Helium costs can be unpredictable - and that can be problematic, especially if you're on a fixed budget from the National Science Foundation,” said Patrick Irvin, research associate professor at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, in an interview with Laboratory Equipment. "You can't go back and get more money, if the price goes up.

"Some people just choose not to do those kinds of experiements," Irvin added. "In our case, we've been able to continue our research - and expand it."

Irvin’s use for the gas is to examine the quantum mechanics of electrons, since metallic alloys can be cooled to a point that they become superconductive, massive electromagnets.

The cost has reached as high as $12.50 per liter – twice what it was a decade ago, according to some estimates. And with depleting supplies it could increase another 50 percent, those estimates hold.

“You can easily spend tens of thousands of dollars a year using helium,” said Irvin.

The new system, part of a five-year renovation funded through American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ("federal stimulus") funds administered by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, has the capacity to recover 80 liters of the stuff per hour, he added.

Pitt now joins other institutions who have invested in such systems. Iowa State, Yale and Harvard have materials online about their respective systems. The designer of the Pitt project, Joseph D. Gibbons of Wilson Architects in Boston, also worked on the Harvard project. The extent of the helium recovery is a good guide for what research is envisioned in the near-future, Gibbons said in a school statement.

“It’s almost a department projection on who they want to hire over the next 10 years,” said Gibbons.

School administrators support the investment in the infrastructure to keep the department’s research running. Keeping the experiments needing cryogenic temperatures running is vital to progress, said W. Richard Howe, association dean of administration and planning.

“This one we had to address,” Howe said. “We can’t afford to subject our faculty either to the lack of helium or the substantial increases of costs.”

The university's liquefier.