CCNY and ASRC install helium gas recycler to curtail loss of a precious finite resource

Helium gas, most commonly known as the substance used to inflate floating balloons, or as the inhaled party gimmick that alters the human voice to a Munchkin-level pitch, is vital for its many applications in many areas of scientific research and medicine. It is an essential part of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) imaging. NMR machines use high powered magnets to create an electromagnetic field which allows scientists to visualize the structure of individual molecules. The process generates a great deal of heat. Helium in liquid form exists at temperatures of −452.20 °F (4.15° K). In this state, it serves as a coolant for the NMR magnets. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), a non-invasive medical imaging technology and the offspring of NMR, also uses liquid helium to cool the machine’s magnets.

City College of New York biochemist and and molecular biophysicist, Ruth Stark, is a nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopist. She studies both solution and solid state proteins at the molecular level.

Magnets have to be fed with cryogenic liquids, both nitrogen and helium. I can’t do my work without cryogens,” said Stark.

Yet despite its being the second-most abundant element in the universe, (hydrogen is first) the earthly supply of helium, a non-renewable natural resource, is running out.

Helium is found in subsurface pockets all over the Earth. The largest deposits are found in the U.S., Algeria,  Russia and Qatar. The three top commercial producers are the U.S., Algeria and Russia. The U.S. Federal Helium Reserve supplies 20% of domestic and upwards of 9% of the global demand for helium. The natural gas reservoirs in the United States contain an estimated 306 billion cubic feet of recoverable helium. A fire at a natural gas plant in Russia in 2022 contributed to a global price increase, and commercial shortage of helium.

Helium shortage problems didn’t just start last year. The Helium Privatization Act of 1996 ordered the US government to sell off much of the National Helium Reserve to private entities within 25 years. The new law brought the helium reserves into the commodity market, where it could be bought, sold and traded like natural gas, or petroleum.

Helium is a noble gas produced through radioactive decay of uranium and thorium far underground. Once formed, it seeps through the Earth’s crust, becoming entrapped in pockets. Although lighter than air, helium is inert:  it does not form molecular bonds with other elements, such as hydrogen and oxygen which combine and are recycled from the atmosphere in the form of water. Once it’s at the surface, helium travels up and out – and only up and out – until it departs the atmosphere into interstellar space never to return, unless it is confined and stored in a sealed container.

“The situation has become so critical over the last decade that you do not know if you’re going to get your deliveries of liquid helium. If you didn’t have the helium, and the research magnet went down in an uncontrolled manner, the equipment could be badly damaged,” said Stark.

The increase in the price of helium, which has risen from $7 per liter a decade ago to between $30.00 - $45 per liter this year has had an impact on research. And that’s if it can be bought at all.

“It was beginning to look untenable, if the price continued to rise, as it has the last several years,” said Kevin Gardner, City College of New York biochemist and director of the the CUNY Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) Structural Biology Initiative. “Money that could be better spent on training or research was literally being used to buy a reagent that we were blowing off into the atmosphere when we were done.”

To address this challenge, Gardner and his colleagues applied for grant from  National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to purchase and install the helium recycling system. Put into service in 2021, and located at the City College Center for Discovery and Innovation (CDI), the recycler recovers approximately 90% of the waste helium gas from eight pieces of equipment located in CDI and ASRC. The recovered gas is liquefied for use in magnetic instruments.

“Last year, sixty percent of the helium we required was being allocated to us. If we didn’t have the recovery system in place, we would not have had helium to support core equipment,” said Denize Favaro, Facility Director of the Biomolecular Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Facility of the ASRC. “The forethought [to install a recycler] was a great and smart move.”

The General Services Administration will auction off the (approximately) 1,800,000,000 cubic feet remaining in the National Helium Reserve, including all federally-owned helium gas; and the federal helium system and crude helium located at the Cliffside Field north of Amarillo, Texas. A sealed bid auction will take place on November 15, 2023 at 2:00 p.m. CST.

A link to a video about the recycler can be found here.

About the City College of New York
Since 1847, The City College of New York has provided a high-quality and affordable education to generations of New Yorkers in a wide variety of disciplines. CCNY embraces its position at the forefront of social change. It is ranked #1 by the Harvard-based Opportunity Insights out of 369 selective public colleges in the United States on the overall mobility index. This measure reflects both access and outcomes, representing the likelihood that a student at CCNY can move up two or more income quintiles. In addition, the Center for World University Rankings places CCNY in the top 1.8% of universities worldwide in terms of academic excellence. Labor analytics firm Emsi puts at $1.9 billion CCNYs annual economic impact on the regional economy (5 boroughs and 5 adjacent counties) and quantifies the for dollar” return on investment to students, taxpayers and society. At City College, more than 16,000 students pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in eight schools and divisions, driven by significant funded research, creativity and scholarship. CCNY is as diverse, dynamic and visionary as New York City itself. View CCNY Media Kit.

Erica Rex

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