The Case for Helium Recovery


Helium is a critical component of cutting edge research. In its liquid form, which boils at 4 Kelvin (or negative 452 Fahrenheit), helium is used to ensure superconductivity for high end scientific instrumentation in chemistry, biology, and medicine including magnetic resonance imagers (MRIs) and nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers (NMRs), as well as for state of the art solid state research in physics and materials science. Helium is entirely nonrenewable, produced as a byproduct of certain mining operations, and once it is released it quickly escapes the Earth’s atmosphere. [1]

The cost of research-grade helium has increased up to 400% from 2010 to 2013 in some regions [2] since the federal government has started the process of selling off the Federal Helium Reserve. To help minimize the impact on its researchers, the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh in partnership with the NSF has invested in the creation of a helium recovery program and associated cost recovery center. Pitt Cryogenics is able to provide the University community with research-grade recycled helium at rates greatly reduced from the virgin helium prices provided by outside vendors. Construction of the facility was completed in January of 2015, and the first recovered helium was supplied to the Department of Physics in March.


Helium Timeline

1868 Solar helium discovered by J Norman Lockyer
1895 Terrestrial helium discovered by Sir William Ramsey
1905 Liquid helium produced by Kamerling Onnes
1917 Federal Helium Program created
1918 Three experimental helium plants constructed in Texas
1921 First full scale helium production plant created in Fort Worth, TX
1925 Federal Helium Program moved to Bureau of Mines
1927 First private helium facility built by Kentucky Oxygen-Hyrogen Co. in Dexter, KS
1927-1929 Depletion of field near Fort Worth forces shutdown.  New plant built in Ammarillo, TX
1937 Amendment to Helium Act authorizes commercial sale of helium
1948 Helium Arc Welding developed
1943-1944 Plants built at Exell, TX, Olis and Cunningham, KS, and Shiprock, NM
1945 First shipment from Exell to Amarillo for underground storage
1949 Bureau of Mines develops Grade A helium (99.995% pure)
1960 Helium Act amended to provide for long term storage
1961 Kerr-McGee Oil Industries signs four contracts for six government purchased of crude helium for conservation
1962 First helium delivery under conservation program
1973 Government ends helium stockpiling and switches to a repleneshment mode of storage in he Bush Dome Reservoir
1996 Helium Privatization Act passes - Exell plant ceases helium, BLM ordered to sell off helium
2006-2007 Worldwide helium shortage
2013 Helium Stewardship Act passed
2015 Pitt Cryogenics begins operation



Helium: Sources and Uses

Technical Overview of Helium Extraction & Refinement

Government Interaction in the Helium Market