Recovering a Non-Renewable Resource Used in Scientific Research

Joseph Gibbons, Wilson Architects Inc.
Pete Chambers, University of Pittsburgh

Helium is a finite resource required to perform low-temperature applications in physics, chemistry and medicine. It is used in a once-through process where compressed liquid helium is inserted into a cryostat and gaseous helium, created as the liquid boils, is expelled into the atmosphere. Through phase changes, helium can reach far lower temperatures than other cryogenic media which allows scientists to probe different states of quantum dynamics leading to advances in quantum computing, drug discovery and biological imaging.

Helium is a relatively rare, non-renewable resource produced on Earth through radioactive decay of elements such as Uranium, and is extracted from certain limited natural gas fields where concentrations are relatively high (but less than 3%). Once released, helium escapes the atmosphere through the action of solar winds making recovery from the air unfeasible.

The cost of this non-renewable resource is erratic and constantly increasing with unit prices ranging from $6.50 to $35.00 per liter, an increase of 50% since the year 2000. While large government and industry consumers can absorb the high cost and rising prices, academic labs are typically locked into multi-year grants with fixed funding for helium supplies. This often leads to a choice between funding graduate students or the experiments required by research. Helium recovery is the solution.

Joseph Gibbons and Pete Chambers will provide an introduction to helium recovery metrics, methods and techniques. Together they have designed the University of Pittsburgh's Mid-Campus Complex Helium Recovery and Liquefaction Facility (the first on campus) which serves more than 160,000 NSF of lab space through five research buildings.

A presentation of this precedent will be accompanied with alternative solutions and common industry standards. Their focus will alternate between facility design, user operations and departmental management.

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the importance of Helium, and why it is used in cutting-edge research despite being a finite resource.
  • Examine how facilities can successfully share Helium as a resource for research via shared core facilities.
  • Learn how shared core facilities can dramatically lower starting and operating costs, allowing dollars to be spent on new PIs and their research versus dollars targeted at material grants.
  • Identify Lessons Learned from this specific Helium Recovery process and compare metrics with alternative Helium Recovery benchmarks.


Joseph is a Designer and Project Manager focusing on the programming, design and construction of university-level research and teaching facilities. His resume includes the design of laboratory and support spaces for organometalic and heterocyclic chemistry, imaging and characterization, condensed matter physics and biomedical and manufacturing cleanrooms. Joseph has completed several lab projects for the University of Pittsburgh and for Boston College, Duke University and The Broad Institute.

Pete is responsible for the oversight and administration of scientific support facilities including Mass Spectroscopy, Microscopy and Imaging, Materials Characterization, NMR, X-ray Diffraction, Animal Facilities, Stockrooms, Pitt Cryogenics, and Electronics, Glass, and Machine Shops for the shared use of the Dietrich School at the University of Pittsburgh. Pete prioritizes shared research needs across the school.


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