New Liquid Helium Recycling System Offers Sustainable Research

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The newly installed system supports research instruments requiring liquid helium, a nonrenewable resource that has recently become less commercially available. 

Superconducting magnets are critical components of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and some mass spectrometry instruments that are used to determine the structures of molecules, from small drug molecules to large proteins. Without a constant supply of liquid helium (He) that is needed to cool the magnets to a temperature of 4.2 Kelvin (or -269 degrees C), those magnets will “quench,” rendering the instruments useless (and sometimes permanently). At UCLA, there are ten such superconducting magnets in shared instruments in the Molecular Instrumentation Center (MIC), and in the Bio-NMR facility: nine NMR systems and one mass spectrometer. Normally, the helium that is used for cooling boils off and is lost into the atmosphere, and thus has to be continuously replenished. In total, the department’s shared instruments consume roughly 5,000 liters of liquid helium annually. 

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Components of the helium (He) recycling system. Compressed He storage cylinders below the collection bag.

Helium is a non-renewable resource that is often found in oil and natural gas wells. The world’s helium supply has become unstable in recent years, mainly due to limited supply and refining capacity, as well as political instability and other factors. In 2018 these factors led to a worldwide helium shortage. Some of the magnets here in the department nearly quenched during that time due to shortages, and the price that we paid for helium roughly tripled from $6/liter to $18/liter. The immediate crisis has past – there is currently no helium shortage. But the price for helium has remained at $15-18 per liter. And it’s difficult to predict when another crisis will occur.

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Collection bag where He gas accumulates. Full collection bag when the compressor isn’t working. 

In 2019, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) offered an administrative supplement to certain NIH-funded grants to pay for helium recovery systems. Professor Juli Feigon applied for, and received this funding, and Professor Miguel Garcia-Garibay, the Dean of Physical Sciences, agreed to fund the additional construction of the room that houses the system and the network of interconnected pipes that transports the helium gas. During 2020 and 2021, the necessary infrastructure was completed and the system was installed. (Fun fact: Construction of the facility was significantly delayed in late 2020 due to a shortage of aluminum that was the result of the huge increase in the consumption of canned beverages at home – as opposed to bottles in bars and restaurants. Or in other words: Beer beats recycling.) The helium that boils off from the ten superconducting magnets is captured and piped to a collection bag, and is then compressed into cylinders, purified to a level of 99.999%, and then re-liquified. That liquid helium can then be put back into the magnets. The helium recovery system has been in operation since September 2021. The system is nominally able to recycle over 90% of the boiloff helium.

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Connection from solid state 600 magnet to manifold. Recovery manifold in MIC NMR facility. 

One main advantage of the system is the savings for the department. The amount of helium purchased per year will be reduced from 5,000 liters to 500 liters. But equally important is that the magnets are much less vulnerable to helium supply problems. “The recycling system gives us lots of flexibility. We can now last many months without needing to buy helium. It greatly reduces the chance that we will accidentally lose a magnet,” Manager of the Macromolecular NMR Core Dr. Robert Peterson said. The helium recycling system will greatly increase the reliability of the departmental instrumentation for many years to come.

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Manifold for He recovery from solid state 600 and 800 magnets. Recovery manifold in BioNMR facility.


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Dr. Ignacio Martini, Professor Juli Feigon, Dean Miguel Garcia-Garibay, Dr. Robert Peterson, Dr. Robert Taylor

The project was headed up by Dr. Ignacio Martini, MIC Director, and Materials Instrumentation Scientist. The system was purchased with NIH funds secured by Professor Juli Feigon. The facilities work, which included major plumbing and construction work, was funded by Professor Miguel Garcia-Garibay, Dean of Physical Sciences. Dr. Robert Peterson, Manager of the Macromolecular NMR Core at the UCLA-DOE Institute, was a major player in the design, planning and construction stages, and Dr. Robert Taylor, Magnetic Resonance Staff Scientist in the MIC, also helped during planning and construction.

Article by Zhuoying Lin (Duan Group), UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, Lin is a first-year chemistry graduate student and science writer. The writer wishes to thank Dr. Ignacio Martini, Dr. Robert Peterson, and Prof. Joseph Loo for their assistance with this article.

Many thanks to Dr. Robert Peterson for the helium recycling system photos.