Helium Shortage Forces Harvard Physics Labs to Shut Down Equipment, Suspend Projects | News

ByLavinia E. Smith

Jun 30, 2022 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Harvard is working out of helium — and it is no laughing make a difference.

A global helium shortage is impacting all sorts of customers, ranging from the Nationwide Weather conditions Assistance, to bash-supply stores, to physicists at universities all around the world.

Harvard’s have supply of helium is now diminished to only 50 p.c of its typical amount, in accordance to Dean of Science Christopher W. Stubbs.

“That has compelled our experimental teams to significantly curtail the experiments that count on that as a cryogenic liquid,” Stubbs mentioned. “It impacts equally features of Harvard’s mission, both equally the study instructing and training aspect, as effectively as the analysis factor.”

The present-day helium shortage is the fourth to manifest given that 2006 and is becoming prompted by shutdowns at various main helium producers. The scarcity has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, as Russia is just one of the world’s best suppliers of helium.

Harvard labs impacted by the scarcity have been pressured to shut down gear that utilizes liquid helium and suspend entire study projects. With out the skill to continue their experiments, some Ph.D. candidates could even have their graduation delayed.

“My coronary heart goes out to the persons whose occupations may possibly be adversely impacted,” Stubbs reported.

“There are other occasions the place people’s perform in the area is impacted by purely natural disasters, by global occasions, and the like,” Stubbs included. “Some of all those items are just unpredictable and unavoidable.”

As a consequence of the recurring shortages, Harvard is wanting to decrease its dependency on helium above time.

“We are actively in the process of crafting a strategy to wean ourselves from liquid helium in the extensive operate,” Stubbs stated.

But in accordance to Andrew T. Pierce, who concluded his Ph.D. in physics at Harvard this year, liquid helium is nevertheless “the lifeblood of lower-temperature physics.”

Whilst new systems that generate very low temperatures devoid of needing a consistent source of liquid helium have been made, individuals units are not suited for all experiments.

“In distinct, they have a tendency to generate fairly intense vibrations,” Pierce explained. “And so pretty delicate applications — like microscopy — that have to have extremely small vibration, are so considerably nonetheless quite complicated to do with these cryogen-free methods.”

“The helium shortage is a blow, actually, to lots of low-temperature physics teams that are carrying out these forms of extra sensitive experiments,” he added.

Charlotte G. L. Bøttcher, who works in Physics Professor Amir Yacoby’s lab, said the helium shortage compelled some graduate students to chart a entirely different study course for their Ph.D. “from one working day to the other.”

Bøttcher known as herself “lucky” since she not too long ago finished her Ph.D. and has not been affected too seriously by the helium scarcity, but mentioned it was “hard” to observe some of her colleagues whose experiments had been “producing really pleasant results” experience repercussions from not possessing ample helium.

“Over the final calendar year or so, they developed the dominant total of papers and final results from the lab,” Bøttcher stated. “And [now] we just could not run that program any more.”

Zhuozhen Cai, a initial-12 months graduate pupil in the Yacoby Lab, was 1 of the Ph.D. candidates whose designs were seriously disrupted by the diminished source of helium.

Cai stated it was “pretty depressing” when she recognized the helium lack would avert her from continuing the undertaking she had spent the previous calendar year schooling to operate on, including that her now suspended undertaking motivated her selection to sign up for the Yacoby Lab in the 1st spot.

“My upcoming right now is not obvious anymore,” Cai stated.

Cai extra she is troubled the most by the uncertainty bordering regardless of whether far more helium will be readily available soon, enabling her original job to resume, or no matter if the scarcity will drag on, forcing her to absolutely abandon her do the job.

“What’s the chance that the helium is going to occur back again in like a few of months?” Cai requested. “Or what is the possibility that we’re just likely to give up this setup eternally?”

“I consider that is the most terrifying section,” she stated.

Pierce, who assisted coach Cai before the shortage, mentioned they were making use of “a definitely old system” that relied on liquid helium mainly because it was “very vibration delicate.”

“Now with the liquid helium becoming obtainable in reduced provide, we’re not ready to operate that technique for the time being,” he mentioned. “We’re not the only types who are sort of in that boat.”

Pierce mentioned Harvard researchers are blessed to have even a lowered provide of helium.

“I have heard that there are some teams and universities that presently can’t get any liquid helium at all,” he claimed. “As generally, we’re truly the beneficiaries of Harvard and the wide assets that are offered to Harvard.”

In reality, Harvard is a lot more shielded from the helium lack than other universities.

Stubbs described that Harvard has a program that is ready to recycle and recirculate some of the helium used at its labs.

“Unlike many other campuses, we basically have a liquid helium recovery process that really recovers the boil off, returns it to a facility with a compressor, and reliquefies it,” Stubbs reported.

Even so, Pierce mentioned the latest scarcity is the “worst one” of his occupation.

“It’s not the very first helium lack which is happened due to the fact I’ve been listed here,” he additional, “but it is certainly the most critical.”


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— Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be attained at [email protected] Comply with him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.