Helium Liquefier Facility Improvements
History of Stewardship at the Illinois Physics Liquid Helium Facility
Loomis Laboratory hosts a Helium Liquefier Facility to serve the needs of researchers working in the physical and biological sciences and in engineering fields at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Liquid helium is a cryogenic refrigerant used in condensed matter physics, materials science, chemistry, high-energy physics, cosmology, and nuclear physics experiments. One of its most prevalent uses is to cool superconducting magnets in imaging instruments: magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) are used to study biological and chemical processes and to diagnose disease.
Helium, the second-most abundant element in the universe, is a nonrenewable resource extracted from natural gas. Because it’s lighter than air, helium easily escapes into the atmosphere, and helium reserves are relatively scarce on Earth.
This timeline, authored by Illinois Physics cryogenics programmer Nikki Colton, documents the efforts of the Liquid Helium Facility staff and Illinois Physics faculty to improve helium stewardship on the Urbana campus through recycling and through upgrades to the facility infrastructure and helium monitoring systems.
For questions about this timeline, contact Nikki Colton at email@example.com.
Timeline of Improvements to the Liquid Helium Facility
Decade: 1950s | 1990s | 2000s | 2010s | 2020s
The Department of Physics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign builds the Liquid Helium Facility to support a growing number of experiments in the bourgeoning field of condensed matter physics. Illinois Physics technical services supervisor Frank Witt and cryogenic technician Robert Reinhart work with scientists and graduate students to design, build, and operate the liquefier for low-temperature experiments.1958
Illinois Physics facilities manager Greg Larson and cryogenic technician Larry Bell are responsible for upkeep of the liquefier plant, until facilities manager Jerry Cook, and cryogenic technician Kenny Roemer take it over in the early 2000s.1990s
Propelled by multiple failures of the old liquefier, the department makes a major investment into a much-needed upgrade to keep the liquefier running smoothly and efficiently. A growing number of researchers across the Urbana-Champaign campus depend on this nonrenewable resource to carry out low-temperature experiments or to operate instruments that only work at low temperature.2006
Senior research engineer Eric Thorsland develops a local helium recovery system for the Nuclear Physics Lab (NPL). Illinois Physics Head and Professor Dale Van Harlingen takes notice and asks Thorsland to develop a more efficient helium recovery plan for the entire department. Most of the early helium recovery work done by Thorsland entails locating and mitigating the largest losses in helium lines and correcting inefficient lab procedures.2011
An international helium shortage, massive price hikes, and delivery delays make helium recovery a high priority at scientific research institutions across the U.S. For the first time in its history, the Urbana liquefier facility operates at a deficit.
Early in the year, at the request of Illinois Physics facilities manager Jerry Cook, University of Florida (UF) cryogenic engineer Greg Labbe makes a site visit to the helium liquefier facility in Urbana. Labbe had digitized UF’s helium-recovery monitoring system in the 1990s, using innovative instrumentation for data acquisition to dramatically improve UF’s liquefaction and recovery efficiency. During the visit, Labbe helps to identify some improvements to the Illinois facility’s recovery system, which are soon implemented.
Later the same year, Cook and senior research engineer Eric Thorsland make independent trips to UF to inspect its recovery system firsthand. Each comes back with ideas for improving the Urbana facility. Among these improvements, the purchase and installation of new recovery compressors leads to an instantaneous increase in the Urbana facility’s helium recovery rate.2013
Facilities manager Jerry Cook and senior research engineer Eric Thorsland engage in long negotiations with UIUC Facilities and Services, including its Utilities and Energy Services personnel, collaborating with members of the Department of Chemistry to connect several helium-cooled magnets situated at three different chemistry buildings to the Loomis Lab helium-recovery system. Thorsland works with Dean Olsen, director of both the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) and Electron Paramagnetic Resonance (EPR) Labs, to develop a low-pressure system to pump helium from the chemistry buildings into the helium recovery system through an underground line. The project, once it is completed in late 2015, allows Illinois Chemistry to recover helium from all its operational magnets for the first time.2014
Senior research engineer Eric Thorsland and facilities manager Jerry Cook consult with University of Florida Cryogenic Engineer Greg Labbe on a project that connects water filtration systems to the helium liquefier and the new helium compressors, reducing moisture contamination and preventing outdoor helium lines from freezing in cold weather.2016
The Liquid Helium Facility serves more than 140 faculty members, delivering gaseous and liquid helium for research purposes. Increased efficiency remains imperative in the production and recovery of liquid helium, a finite and diminishing resource used by the condensed matter, nuclear physics, biological physics, and observational cosmology research groups at Illinois Physics, as well as by researchers in labs across campus.2017
The liquefier team runs a 1,500-foot underground line from Loomis Lab to the Chemical and Life Sciences Laboratory (CLSL), a project requiring directional boring under Green Street and Goodwin Avenue. Nikki Colton, a full-time undergraduate physics student who has worked part-time at the liquefier since 2017, consults with research engineer and lab manager Todd Moore about recording helium-recovery data. Moore comes up with the idea to instrument the existing diaphragm gas meters with Raspberry Pis (inexpensive credit-card sized computers) using LabVIEW code, to acquire data for analysis. Moore and Colton collaborate on a prototype demonstrating proof of concept, then Colton scales up the project to include all existing gas meters and rewrites the LabVIEW code in Python to improve reliability and scalability.
Once the Raspberry Pis start measuring the flow of helium through the recovery meters, the team identifies meters that are leaking helium gas into the atmosphere. These meters are immediately isolated from the recovery system to prevent further loss of helium. The team installs check valves throughout the entire recovery system, to prevent recovered gas from flowing back into the gas meters and out into the atmosphere.
As the team continues its investigations into the operation of the Liquid Helium Facility's infrastructure, more efficiencies are found. These include attaching a Raspberry Pi to the recovery bag in the basement of Loomis, to alert liquefier staff members whenever helium is pushed through the meter.2018
In January, Professor and Head Matthias Grosse Perdekamp appoints a task force to justify the continued need for a liquefier facility and to identify any alternatives; to investigate and document recent operations, upgrades, and budgets; and to propose operations and upgrade plans at a range of possible budgets. The task force, led by Professor Liang Yang and including Professors Jeff Filippini and Vidya Madhavan, facilities manager Jerry Cook, assistant facilities manager Kelly Sturdyvin, senior research engineer Eric Thorsland, and business manager Steve Knell, reviews many years of budget details and consults with representatives of comparable liquefier plants at several other universities. In March, Filippini presents the task force’s recommendations to the department, including increased staffing, hardware upgrades, and an annual audit of the plant. The final task force report is submitted in April.
Newly appointed cryogenic technician Kelly Sturdyvin assumes operation of the helium liquefier. Sturdyvin had helped in the liquefier area since 2007 and regularly covered for cryogenic technician Kenny Roemer whenever Roemer was away. The liquefier now has a new team comprising cryogenics programmer Nikki Colton, Sturdyvin, and Thorsland.
Thorsland organizes a visit for himself, Sturdyvin, and Colton to the liquefier facilities at Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. UIUC’s helium recovery team learns from those facilities’ best practices and establishes a collaborative rapport with their liquefier technicians. In December, Sturdyvin is invited back to the NWU liquefier facility to help the cryogenic technician with the facility’s first liquefier overhaul. By now, Kelly improved UIUC’s liquefier’s operation to a point where an overhaul is required only every 30 months or so. Prior to this, an overhaul was conducted at the Urbana facility every 14 months, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, depending on parts, labor, and travel.
Sturdyvin’s mechanical intuition and commitment to improving the Liquid Helium Facility’s operations result in less down time of the liquefier and compressors. Improvements made include replacing or removing older gauges, pipes, shelves, lighting, and other infrastructure to modernize the facility and enhance staff productivity. New digital displays on the liquefier help Sturdyvin set different speeds for the conversion from gas to liquid, which is helpful when multiple researchers need helium as soon as possible. Overall improvements in helium recovery mean trailers of helium tanks are rented half as frequently, down from once every 2 months to once every 4 months. Additionally, the liquefier frequently produces more liters per hour of liquid helium than the manufacturer’s specification of 46 liters per hour—sometimes at a rate as high as 58 liters per hour.2019
In March, Cryogenics technician Kelly Sturdyvin organizes facility visits from University of Wisconsin-Madison and Northwestern University liquefier technicians, to collaborate on further operations efficiencies. Sturdyvin is invited back to UWM in December 2021 to help install a new cryogenic system.
Early in the year, cost projections and plans are finalized for a long underground recovery line covering a distance over 1.75 miles from the Nuclear Physics Lab (NPL) to Loomis Lab. It is completed, tested, and goes into use in the summer. This upgrade allows NPL researchers to return gas from NPL to the main recovery bag in Loomis Lab without hauling pressurized bottles across campus.
The liquefier team reaches out to research groups to provide helium use and conservation training. Senior research engineer Eric Thorsland initiates the practice of conducting audits of research labs’ recovery practices, to ensure maximum efficiency.
The first annual liquefier plant audit—one of several recommendations presented by the department’s liquefier task force—is headed by Professor Jeff Filippini. He reports, despite some COVID-related disruptions, many of the task force’s recommended improvements to the facility have been implemented and are showing strong results.
In March, the team addresses a problem that can occur during helium recovery: if the gas-recovery process is not executed properly, air can sometimes be pumped into the recovery system, causing the amount of helium recovered to be incorrectly registered and potentially causing damage to the liquefier and compressors. With guidance from senior research engineer Eric Thorsland, cryogenics programmer Nikki Colton uses Raspberry Pis to instrument the system with humidity sensors that monitor for air in the recovery pipes, ensuring only gaseous helium is pushed into the recovery system. Colton also instruments pressure transducers to detect pressure changes in the helium pipes, which helps the team better understand the normal and abnormal behavior of the helium recovery system. The department hires physics major and student worker Anna Przybyl to assist Colton with these upgrades to instrumentation for system monitoring.
The Python programs that Colton and Przybyl develop to run in the Raspberry Pi’s Linux environment are now almost entirely automated. The data acquisition of helium recovery rates and the recently installed check valves prove reliable enough to be used for researchers’ reimbursement of recovered helium.
Historical data analysis for several dozen recovery meters, two humidity sensors, and two pressure transducers are made available online to the campus community.
The liquefier team's efforts in making the Illinois Physics Liquid Helium Facility more efficient pay off for the department: it’s projected that the facility’s budget will operate in the black for FY2022, for the first time in many years.2021
Cryogenics programmer Nikki Colton and student worker Anna Przybyl will soon begin instrumenting a liquid helium level sensor for transport dewars.
The liquefier team is currently working on building a secure public website to showcase its helium recovery data, currently only accessible to the UIUC community.
The helium recovery team is looking at the feasibility of expanding the helium recovery system to service more UIUC researchers across campus, possibly including those at the College of Medicine; the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences; the Departments of Materials Science and Engineering; Mechanical Science and Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering; the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology; the College of Veterinary Medicine; and Beckman’s Biomedical Imaging Facility. Helium recovery may also expand off campus to include OSF Heart of Mary Medical Center and Carle Hospital.Future Plans