LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas lab director has been awarded $500,000 from the National Science Foundation to recycle helium from research equipment. His efforts will help ensure future generations of scientists have access to the nonrenewable gas that’s needed for many areas of research.
“We've been using helium scientifically and for various industrial purposes for more than 100 years now,” said Justin Douglas, director of KU’s Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Laboratory and lead researcher on the project. “Unfortunately, there’s only so much of it that's trapped within the Earth's crust that we can get to in a reasonable way.”
Helium is used in a number of important scientific instruments, including nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers that allow researchers to determine the structure of molecules. Douglas estimates that about 200 students, faculty and staff use these instruments at KU alone in fields ranging from chemistry and pharmacy to biology and engineering.
Helium molecules are small enough to escape Earth’s atmosphere once released into the air. Without new recycling methods like the one Douglas is developing, future scientists won’t be able to conduct the same experiments used today.
“I've always used these instruments, and I've always seen that there's a little port in the back. As the helium evaporates, it just sort of escapes,” Douglas said. “It's always bugged me that ... we weren't doing anything to collect it.”
Helium has a unique connection to both KU and the state of Kansas. In 1903, residents of Dexter, a small town southeast of Wichita, discovered a large well of natural gas. But attempts to light the well caused confusion when the gas would not burn.
Then-KU geology professor Erasmus Haworth heard about the mystery and brought samples back to Lawrence. Two chemistry professors, Hamilton Cady and David McFarland, began two years of research to understand the phenomenon. In December of 1905 in a laboratory in KU’s Bailey Hall, the two discovered the gas contained helium, which at the time was thought to be present only in the sun and in trace amounts of a mineral called cleveite.
In 1917 the U.S. government began funding research into potential military applications for helium due to aircraft usage in the first world war. Today helium is used in low-temperature physics, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), arc welding and more.
“At the University of Kansas, we were pioneers in the discovery of terrestrial sources of liquid helium, and I think we should be pioneers in the recovery and recycling of this precious nonrenewable resource,” Douglas said.
To capture helium from research equipment, Douglas will connect ports to a 300-cubic-foot bag. After the bag fills up, he will compress the gas into high-pressure cylinders, purify it, and convert it to liquid for scientific and industrial use.
“At some point, our grandchildren are going to need to answer important scientific questions, and they're going to need liquid helium to do this sort of research — be it low-temperature physics, or chemistry, or engineering or pharmacy,” Douglas said. “So I think it's really important that we do what we can to recover this resource.”
Douglas’ work exemplifies KU’s strength in research focused on earth, energy and environment, one of KU’s five strategic research themes. This area will increase understanding of the various dimensions and impacts of climate change on human and natural systems, developing new technologies and mitigation strategies with an ultimate goal of sustaining the life of the planet and its inhabitants.
Photo: Bailey Hall