The current scarcity of helium could have significant implications for the space, high-tech, and medical industries—not just the much-talked-about party balloon business.
At Johns Hopkins, condensed matter physicists and astronomers in the Krieger School's Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy use liquefied helium to create extremely cold (often just a few degrees above absolute zero) research conditions. And when helium gas is released into the air—whether from a party balloon or from liquid helium vaporized in a research cryostat—it dissipates into the atmosphere, never to be utilized again.
Responding to the global shortage, researchers and faculty members have installed a helium recovery system and liquefier in the Bloomberg Center. The new system, which captures used helium from labs throughout the department and then purifies and re-cools it back to the liquid state, serves as a much-needed recycler of this nonrenewable resource. It can store 500 liters of liquid helium.
"The liquefier delivers helium to researchers at a greatly reduced cost," says N. Peter Armitage, an assistant professor, who spearheaded the liquefier's acquisition and installation. "The price of helium had increased about 30 percent in the five years or so leading up to when we decided to buy a liquefier last year, and the price has gone up about another 40 percent just in this year alone. And we can't even get it reliably. Helium is becoming more expensive and less available," he says. "It's just wasteful not to have a liquefier."
The liquefier creates a nearly closed loop of helium usage within Bloomberg, and by enabling a stable and affordable supply of liquid helium for the department, it will provide critical infrastructure for research from superconductivity and nanoscience to cosmology for years to come.
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