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Helium recycling project sets a new standard for sustainability at UCSF
By Grant Burningham / Thu Jun 17, 2021
Helium, the ultra-light gas found in airships and birthday balloons, has a quirk that makes it invaluable for science and medicine. With a freezing point of -458°F (-272.2°C), it is only a liquid at all but the coldest of temperatures, making it an ideal substance for supercooling the electronics and magnets that run biomedical equipment.
Unfortunately, the physical properties that make helium such a useful resource also make it a wily substance to contain. It boils into a gas as soon as it gets warm (at a relatively chilly -452.1°F). Then it escapes from the machines that depend on it and rises, lighter than air, up through the earth’s atmosphere and out into space.
Every year, 10,000 liters of liquid helium are used by just two imaging facilities housed at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus managed by the UCSF Schools of Pharmacy and Medicine—enough to fill 625,000 birthday balloons. Helium shortages have even brought scientific experiments and medical operations to a standstill in the recent past.
Mark Kelly, PhD, is an expert in the use of the nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer, one helium-dependent type of machine, and he has made it his mission to capture warmed-up helium, store it, and cool it down for reuse. An adjunct professor in the School of Pharmacy and the associate director of the School’s NMR Lab, he’s now also known across the university as an expert on helium.
“If we’re going to be serious about sustainability at UCSF, we can’t ignore helium,” said Kelly. “Now we know that it really is feasible to let very little of it go to waste.”
A crucial element for discovery and diagnosis
The NMR spectrometers that Kelly works with are routinely used by many scientists at Mission Bay. These room-sized machines can help scientists visualize the atomic structure of different molecules, an early step in the drug development process.
At the core of an NMR spectrometer is a superconducting magnet: a spool of wire, no thicker than a thread, supercooled to the point where it has almost no electrical resistance. Only a -452.5° F bath of liquid helium can keep this magnet cold enough to function.
Superconducting magnets play important roles in patient care, too. They’re used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines to diagnose everything from cancer treatments to sports injuries, and they’re used for magnetoencephalography (MEG), a type of scanner for brain activity used to guide brain surgery.
The superconducting magnets at the core of NMR, MRI, and MEG machines all require cooling in a helium bath—and that helium is usually allowed to escape, absent some way of recapturing and reusing it. In the past, UCSF has had a steady supply of helium, but several recent supply chain disruptions have starkly revealed the need to make the University’s helium use more sustainable.
Don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone
In 2017, a Saudi Arabian-led trade embargo hit Qatar, a key producer of helium, and by 2019, the helium industry couldn’t keep up with demand. Prices soared, creating helium shortages worldwide that pushed labs and medical imaging clinics to the brink of shutting down.
“These machines aren’t easy to turn on and off,” said Kelly. “It can cost $250,000 to restart a machine and the process can take months.”
Such downtime not only forces researchers to pause some experiments, but also leads to the outright cancellation of others. Kelly recalls that UC Davis was among the institutions forced to turn off several of its scientific machines because it couldn’t find helium.
Helium shortages can also severely impact patient care. Brain surgeons rely on MEG to assess their patients. During the helium shortages of 2019, technicians at UCSF would call Kelly in tears, desperate to find more helium so they wouldn’t have to delay critical procedures.
“There were too many nights of worrying whether a helium shipment would arrive,” said Kelly. “It felt like we were sitting on a space station, hoping someone would send out a rocket with critical supplies.”
Eventually, the UC Office of the President directly called the vice president of a gas supplier to get supplies flowing again.
Many experiments were saved and operations were able to proceed, but it wasn’t a permanent solution. The only way to make sure UCSF wouldn’t be at the mercy of helium market shocks in the future, short of abandoning NMR, MRI, and MEG, would be to stop wasting the precious gas.
Blazing a path toward helium sustainability
Kelly got to work building the infrastructure to recycle the gas out of laboratory machines instead of letting it float away.
It was a team effort, with contributions from the School’s Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry (John Gross, PhD; Michelle Arkin, PhD; Matthew Jacobson, PhD; Joanna Trammel); School of Pharmacy Dean B. Joseph Guglielmo, PharmD; the School of Medicine’s Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging Radiology (John Kurhanewicz, PhD; Mark Van Criekinge, MSc; Christopher Hess, MD, PhD); Supply Chain Management (Dean Shehu); the Research Resource Program (Mike Lee); UCSF senior associate vice chancellor Brian Smith, JD, MBA; and UCSF executive vice chancellor and provost Daniel Lowenstein, MD.
Now when helium warms up and turns into gas inside of an NMR machine at Mission Bay, it is shunted through a maze of copper pipes into big black bags, each the size of an SUV, which store the gas until it can be recycled. Along the way, the helium picks up traces of water and nitrogen from the air, which then has to be frozen out of it. The purified, gaseous helium is finally sent to a very cold condenser where it is turned back into a liquid before returning to its job of supercooling NMR magnets.
Kelly’s system isn’t perfect. Helium is hard to contain because its atoms are small and there’s very little force holding them together. As a result, helium finds tiny cracks and floats away. Helium is so good at escaping that it’s used to test airtight seals on rockets, space suits, and life support systems for NASA.
Despite these challenges, Kelly’s helium-saving project has greatly reduced the amount of helium used by the two Core labs at Mission Bay. “We have only bought a very small amount of helium since the beginning of the year,” said Kelly. “The team from the two cores has now recovered 1,000 liters of helium since January.”
Kelly expects to save $120,000 in helium expenditures per year, all for a cost of about $500,000 for buying and installing the recycling system.
And there are other savings. The planet has a finite supply of helium, which is most easily obtained as a byproduct of natural gas production. The helium UCSF uses comes from a natural gas mine in Wyoming and is transported to California on gas-guzzling trucks. As long as it wastes helium, UCSF, which is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2025, will continue to depend on the fossil fuel industry for its helium.
Kelly hopes that his helium recycling efforts with NMR spectrometers will inspire the construction of similar systems for UCSF’s other helium-dependent machines. At the very least, it’s clear that there’s still room for improvement.
“In our pursuit of discoveries that improve the lives of patients, sustainability must remain a core value,” said School of Pharmacy Dean B. Joseph Guglielmo, PharmD. "Kelly's novel helium recycling system enhances how we do our science, saving money and improving efficiency.”
About the School: The UCSF School of Pharmacy aims to solve the most pressing health care problems and strives to ensure that each patient receives the safest, most effective treatments. Our discoveries seed the development of novel therapies, and our researchers consistently lead the nation in NIH funding. The School’s doctor of pharmacy (PharmD) degree program, with its unique emphasis on scientific thinking, prepares students to be critical thinkers and leaders in their field.