Helium is an element with a complex background and is known to most consumers as the gas that makes balloons float. But, helium also plays a vital role in gas chromatography experiments and as global helium supplies dwindle and prices rise, it is becoming more important than ever to use helium conservatively.
An Element with a Complex History
Following World War I, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) established a national helium reserve to store the element for use in fire-resistant airships. As these airships were replaced with more modern technologies, the government was left with a massive stockpile of helium and an equally large debt. In 1996, Congress passed a bill to sell all helium reserves, pay off the debt, and privatize the helium business by 2015. The government’s price for helium then remained fixed while demand increased.
According to the American Physical Society, the federal helium reserve supplies 40 percent of the helium in the U.S. and 35% worldwide. The 1996 bill mandated that the BLM stop selling helium once its debt was paid off. However, this would have caused dramatic helium shortages, as alternative producers did not have anywhere near the capacity to meet demand. Industries like medical imaging, semiconductor manufacturing, and chemical analysis, among others, would have been negatively impacted. To avoid going over what was referred to the helium cliff when the BLM became debt-free, the Helium Stewardship Act was passed in 2013. This bill allows the BLM to sell helium at market rates.
What Happens When Helium Reserves Run Out
The BLM will continue to sell helium at market rates until its reserve has been almost completely depleted. This is estimated to happen around 2020. The 1996 bill assumed that private industry would begin producing helium and thus take over a large portion of the market share, but this has not been the case. Extracting and refining helium is an expensive process, but with the selling price of the gas being artificially low for many years, gas companies lacked incentive to produce more helium. In the meantime, domestic and foreign demand for helium continue to rise, with prices close behind.
Helium Use in Gas Chromatography
The helium shortage has caused a search for alternative carrier gases for use in gas chromatography. One popular solution is to replace helium with hydrogen, and while this is a viable option, it’s not without its undesirable side effects. Hydrogen has a slower pumping speed than helium, as well as lower sensitivity in electron ionization. These qualities can cause reactions with halogenated solvents and, in mass spectrometry, may alter the spectra.
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Another option to reduce helium consumption is switching to a standby gas, such as nitrogen, when the chromatograph is idle. With this method, however, nitrogen will typically saturate the carbon filter upstream of the injection port, necessitating a prolonged waiting period each time the instrument is started up again.
Helium is the optimal choice for use in gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers. But how can helium consumption be reduced without affecting the functionality of the instruments?
Helium Saver Module
In gas chromatography, purging residuals from the liner and septum uses more gas than the analytical separation process. Using pure helium is crucial for gas analysis, but once the injected components have transferred to the analytical column, introducing a separate gas for the purge process does not impact chromatographic separations. Having implemented this technology, our Helium Saver Module allows a cylinder of helium to last from 3.5 to 14 years, depending on how continuously it is used. Read more about this module plus other details on our innovative gas chromatography solutions on our website.
Visit these additional resources if you’re interested in helium conservation and its application to gas chromatography.
- Innovations in routine sample analysis for volatile content using purge and trap technique: conserving helium and improving laboratory throughput (on-demand webinar)
- Rise Above the Risk: Effective GC Solutions to Optimize Helium Usage (journal article)
- An Innovative Injector Allows Helium Carrier Gas Conservation in Analytical Gas Chromatography (downloadable poster)
- The ‘Noble’ Undertaking of Helium Conservation (article)
Is helium conservation an issue you or your laboratory are struggling with? If so, I’d like to hear your thoughts and experiences.