The geopolitical crisis in the Middle East highlights the vulnerability of supplies of an essential research resource.
The blockade of Qatar by its neighbours is a reminder of how the fragile geopolitics of the world’s helium supply leaves researchers vulnerable. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Qatar is the second-largest supplier of liquefied helium, which scientists rely on to cool superconducting magnets inside nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers, magnetic resonance imaging scanners, particle accelerators, and much else besides. Researchers now face price hikes, and, more importantly, could struggle to get their hands on the stuff at all. During shortages, science is far down the delivery list, because bigger customers get priority (see page 16). And without helium, scientists can be forced to reschedule or abandon experiments, and to place costly and complicated equipment in shutdown.
Other helium shortages have caused havoc for labs over the past two decades. Yet there is a simple way for researchers to both insulate themselves from supply shortages and save on their helium bills — a large chunk of running expenses in many labs.
The solution is to prevent millions of research dollars of liquid helium from literally and unnecessarily evaporating into thin air. Helium boils at just 4 kelvin, and during normal lab operations much inevitably evaporates, and is lost forever into the atmosphere (and onwards into space). But by capturing this vented gas, up to 95% of it can be reliquefied, stored and reused.
The recycling technology does not come cheaply — up-front capital investment starts at around US$100,000 for a facility to supply even a small lab, and often costs several million dollars for larger facilities. So recycling facilities tend to be found only in industry, large universities and national labs.
Yet even the most rudimentary calculations show how costs can be quickly recouped. The American Physical Society has helped to launch an interactive website that allows researchers to calculate whether recycling would make economic sense for them or their institutions. They should give it a spin. And then they should badger officials and administrators to get it done. As a rule of thumb, research centres using more than 30,000 litres of helium a year should be investing in small-scale reliquefiers. To not do so is folly, especially as political and public scrutiny of investment in science tightens.
Faced with supply cuts due to the Qatar blockade that will inevitably result in shortages around the world, researchers with recycling facilities feel deservedly smug that, with less of their lab helium going to waste and stocks out at the back, they are much better placed than non-recycling colleagues to see through the storm.
Research funders must step up. Stuart Brown, a physicist at the University of California, Los Angeles, testified at a congressional subcommittee hearing in Washington DC on 21 June that rising prices and unstable supplies are having a detrimental effect on research — leading, for example, to scientists hiring fewer staff in order to pay their helium bills, or abandoning altogether research areas that require liquid helium. And universities are sometimes even reluctant to hire faculty members whose work requires liquid helium, because of its high costs.
Brown called for legislation to provide support for researchers to invest in recycling. His case is difficult to fault. Recycling would save money in the long term, prevent the withering of helium-dependent research, and provide a much needed buffer against temporary shortages.
Otherwise, researchers and their funders may as well fill coloured balloons with their vented gas. Then at least we can all contemplate the spectacle of their research cash floating away.
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Helium should be recycled. Nature 547, 6 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/547006a