Helium recovery at Pitt

In 2014, in the midst of a multiyear spike in helium prices, the University of Pittsburgh poured millions of dollars into building a high-tech machine aimed at recovering the helium that its researchers used. Prices stabilized soon after, and a substantial return on its investment seemed a far-off possibility. But now, as another shortage threatens the viability of basic science research, Pitt’s machine — one of the most efficient of its kind in the world — is paying dividends. Crude helium prices sold at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s 2019 auction clocked in at $279.95 per million standard cubic feet, an increase of roughly 135% from the year prior.

Helium is used to maintain low-operating temperatures of medical devices such as MRI scanners and nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers — machines that help with analysis of small molecules. Damodaran K. Achary, a chemistry professor at Pitt, said the magnets contained in each spectrometer require an input of between 50 and 150 liters of liquid helium on multiple occasions each year. If the helium is not replenished in time, he estimates a replacement magnet could cost upward of $50,000. Even after the university connected its helium recovery machine to the chemistry department’s labs earlier this year, the nationwide shortage remains in the back of researchers’ minds, Mr. Achary said.

Only a handful of helium production facilities exist, increasing the risk that political maneuvering halfway around the globe — such as a recent Saudi Arabian embargo of Qatar, which holds close to a third of the world’s helium supply — can threaten the use of balloons at birthday parties in the United States. Other causes of the current shortage — which has lasted over a year — include increased worldwide demand, maintenance issues in the United States and the dwindling supply of the National Helium Reserve, a facility in Amarillo, Texas, that the government once closely protected for its strategic value in the space race but has since privatized.

Mr. Chambers, the Pitt facilities director, said the university’s recovery system has decreased its helium usage by over 60%. Yet he still remains concerned about availability, especially after an ominous call from a supplier recently warning of a “large shortage” coming in July. “And I do hope that we will be able to weather some of these storms because I don't think it's gonna get better for a while,” he said.

Written by Jonah Berger

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