Conserving Helium, a Scarce Nonrenewable Resource, and Reducing Costs at NMR Facility

Photo of NMRFAM facility

The National Magnetic Resonance Facility at Madison (NMRFAM) housed in the UW–Madison Department of Biochemistry is home to state-of-the-art technology for biomolecular nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy and related techniques. The facility’s equipment requires helium, and with worldwide supplies dwindling, has recently installed a helium recovery system to increase sustainability and cut costs.

NMR enables researchers to probe the structures and dynamics of biological macromolecules and to identify structure-function relationships. The facility offers instrumentation, software, and expertise. NMR excels at uncovering molecular interactions, for example, between drugs and drug targets or between macromolecules themselves. NMR can also be used to probe the composition of small molecules in biological fluids, such as plasma, cerebral spinal fluid, urine, and cell/organ extracts. This type of structural work is important in many areas of research, such as the search for new antibiotics.

All nine of the NMR magnets at NMRFAM are “superconducting.” As long as they remain cooled at liquid helium temperature (4º Kelvin or about ‒450º Fahrenheit), they behave like permanent magnets. The liquid helium used to cool each system boils off slowly and has to be replenished. The problem is that helium is a scarce nonrenewable resource extracted from the ground, which escapes from the Earth’s atmosphere when released.

Read more about the helium recovery system at the link below.