The University of Illinois has recently made considerable investment in helium recycling technology as it strives to achieve sustainability in the gas against a well-documented backdrop of fluctuating supply dynamics. Helium is a linchpin for millions of dollars of chemical and engineering research on the University’s Urbana-Champaign campus. Its primary application on campus is as a liquid, used as a coolant for superconducting magnets, which carry a stable electrical current that scientists use to investigate the molecular structure of anything from pigments and building materials to pharmaceutical compounds and food flavours. According to a statement from the Campus’ Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment, the Department of Physics has invested $600,000 in new air compressors, increased gas storage capacity, an underground transportation pipeline, and a remote helium collection bladder to increase the amount of helium gas collected and recycled.
Both cost factors – the University notes that one liquid litre of helium costs almost $15, while a litre of liquid nitrogen costs around $1 – and supply dynamics are cited as drivers behind the investment. Eric Thorsland, Senior Research Engineer in the Department of Physics, said, “It became apparent in the summer of 2013 that we needed to take control of our helium destiny.” “Our gas supply that we use to make liquid helium in Loomis Lab that summer was cut off.” During a recent four-week winter break between semesters, a horizontal pipeline was drilled underground from the basement of the Chemical and Life Sciences Laboratory A building to the basement of Loomis Lab. Soon, individual tubes will connect the exhaust from more than a dozen magnets in Noyes Lab, Roger Adams Lab, and Chemical and Life Sciences Lab to a large bladder in the basement of the Chemical and Life Sciences Lab. As this bag fills with captured helium, a fan will blow the gas through the underground pipe to the physics liquid helium facility in Loomis – once there, the helium is pressurised and stored in tanks to await reliquefication and redistribution to superconducting magnets around campus. At peak efficiency, the improved and expanded recycling system should capture as much as 95% of campus helium. When the system achieves 90% recycling efficiency, the statement adds, the Campus will save more than $211,000 annually. The University aims to see a full return on the Department’s $600,000 investment in 2-3 years.