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Solutions for the Global Helium Shortage


Peter DeCew
Business Analyst

For many years now, the scientific community has been heavily impacted by a series of global helium shortages. Discussions about potential helium shortages began as early as 1982, and the first major shortage occurred in 2006-2007. In the 17-year period between 2006-2022 there were 8 periods of supply deficits, causing helium price spikes and, for some, a complete breakdown in supply.

The more recent supply issues can be attributed to sanctions on Russian exports, lingering pandemic supply chain issues, and a 4-month outage in 2021 of the US Bureau of Land Management’s Crude Helium Enrichment Unit that removed more than 10% of worldwide capacity from the market alone.

As a result of the shortages, the past 10 years have seen helium costs rise between 4x to 10x. For example, Juraj Bella, the NMR lab manager at the University of Edinburgh, revealed that they had faced helium costs “that nearly quadrupled in the last ten years.”

The industries facing the greatest impact use instruments requiring constant streams of liquid helium. These include all magnetic resonance imaging machines such as MRIs, NMRs, and many others. Without liquid helium, these devices would become inoperable and, in some cases, damaged beyond repair. The lack of supply and rising costs have forced many users to shut down their instruments and sometimes halt research altogether.

Why Helium Recovery?

With the extreme rise in supply instability and price, helium users have seen a considerable increase in annual operating costs as well as an increase in anxiety about potentially losing use of an instrument that might easily cost over $1M.

By recycling their existing helium, organizations can safeguard themselves against helium supply issues and insulate their budgets against helium price fluctuations. Customers can stop worrying about purchasing helium and instead rely on helium management solutions.

Helium recovery and reliquefaction then, not only promise to save money, but can also act as an insurance policy for very expensive equipment and key business processes.

Another major benefit of helium recovery is that it is a key green initiative. Helium is a finite resource; once it boils off to the atmosphere it is lost forever. By recovering and reusing existing supplies, it is possible to extend the life of the millions of devices in the numerous helium applications around the world.

Types of Helium Solutions

Here at Bluefors, our Cryomech product line offers a variety of different ways to manage helium and/or liquid helium supplies. Our longest standing offering is our helium recovery system:

A Cryomech Liquid Helium Plant, courtesy of Ohio State University’s Physics Department

A helium recovery system allows several helium sources to be connected to a single, central location. Boil-off helium is gathered in an atmospheric recovery bag that ensures there is no backpressure interference with instruments.

Once the bag is full, it triggers a laser that signals to the helium recovery compressor to begin filling gas storage cylinders. Finally, the gas is purified to 99.999% helium and liquefied for later use by liquid helium plants, which can be designed to produce anywhere from 15 L to 100 L helium per day.

Bluefors Helium recovery schematic
Helium recovery schematic

The system shown above is modular, and can be tailored for specific needs. For example, if there is no need to liquefy helium, but only a need to recover gas, it can be contained in the gas cylinders. Alternatively, if gas is already being captured but there is no way to reliquefy it, a purifier and liquid helium plant can be easily added. Another version of this system is our cost-effective compact recovery system for low boil-off applications.

Bluefors compact helium recovery system
Compact helium recovery system schematic

This functions similarly to the larger helium recovery system, but instead of using a bag as a buffer volume it uses a variable speed compressor and a gas cylinder as a buffer tank.

The compact system can also utilize multiple piped sources, but it cannot scale up to very large applications. One of the benefits of this setup is how small the footprint is. The lack of a recovery bag, while limiting capacity, introduces less contamination into the recovery circuit. Because of this, only a mini purifier is needed – which results in a lower price tag.

The compact recovery system is ideal for labs with multiple instruments that use small amounts of helium.

Finally, we have our line of helium reliquefiers designed for single unit helium-consuming devices.

Cryomech HeRL02-RM Helium reliquefier
HeRL02-RM Helium Reliquefier

A helium reliquefier is designed to be a point-of-use device that creates a closed loop, zero boil-off system. For example, this can be mounted on top of a cryostat, and as it boils off helium, the gas is directed via a flexible return line to a pulse tube cryocooler powered reliquefier. As the gas passes over the cold head, it condenses and drips down the drain leg back into a liquid helium bath.

These units are designed to handle a consistent level of boil-off in a closed circuit. Liquefaction capacities range from 2.5 L to 40 L per day. Our latest release is our smallest reliquefier yet – the HeRL02-RM – specifically designed with NMRs in mind. It draws less power than any of the other reliquefiers in our portfolio, and has several proprietary vibration mitigation techniques implemented into its design (including a remote motor) to ensure that no vibration is introduced to the measurements being taken by the NMR.

A Cure for Helium Headaches

For some, the latest helium shortage has just been another headline in the news, but for the industries that rely on helium, the shortages have consequential effects that, in the case of life sciences, might have an impact on individual lives. This is one reason that solutions that preserve helium resources are vital.

By investing in a helium recovery solution, companies and organizations have been able to save themselves the headache of reordering helium and relying on an extremely unstable global supply.

For example, Juraj Bella encouraged the University of Edinburgh to invest in a gas recovery system for the NMR lab that became fully functional at end of 2019. He is now seeking a liquefaction solution to pair with the existing gas recovery infrastructure, and hopes that by doing this, he will have helped the scientific community at the university remain helium independent.

Another group with helium recovery experience is the chemistry department at the University of Rochester. Senior Lab Engineer, Tessa Baker, says “Prior to purchasing the helium recovery system, we were purchasing about 4 000 L of liquid helium a year to use with different instruments. In addition, to the large cost, we had to plan experiments carefully to utilize the entirety of the liquid helium we were purchasing each time and be ready for experiments whenever the liquid helium arrived.

“It was a logical choice to add a helium recovery system so that the instruments could be utilized as much as needed with as little helium expense as possible. Since purchasing and installing the helium recovery system in 2021 our liquid helium orders have decreased to about 100 L a year.“

At Bluefors, we are proud that our range of Cryomech liquid helium management products lead the helium conservation movement with the largest selection of laboratory-scale helium recovery and liquefier options on the market, with hundreds of successful installations worldwide.

Contact our sales engineers to learn more, and find out how our off-the-shelf and customized solutions can easily be configured to meet your needs.