Liquid Helium Within UK's Reach

LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 8, 2010) - The University of Kentucky can now make its own liquid helium, which is good news for more than just Lexington's party planning population.

The Earth's helium supply is limited, and some predict that by 2015, it will be gone. While the declining supply of helium might not be as well-publicized as other natural resources, a shortage has consequences.

"Like coal, oil and natural gas, helium will inevitably run out," explained UK physics and astronomy professor Gang Cao. "And helium is essential…to medical science (for example, MRIs), space technology, TV manufacturing and, of course, party balloons."

Helium's buoyancy as the second lightest element on Earth causes it to easily escape from our atmosphere's grasp. As any child knows, helium-filled balloons can be ornery, to say the least.

Cao, UK's Director of the Center for Advanced Materials, has found a way to keep helium on the ground and in UK’s laboratories.

Using recovered helium gas from individual labs in UK’s Physics and Chemistry building, gaseous helium is initially collected into a holding tank. Moving through two compressors and finally a helium liquefier, liquid helium is produced and ready to use for research. In just one hour, UK’s Department of Physics and Astronomy can produce up to 47 liters of liquid helium with the new liquefier.

"It is unique in this region of the country as our neighboring peers, such as University of Tennessee, Indiana University, Penn State University, University of Cincinnati, West Virginia University, etc., have no such a setup," said Cao.

Students have also noticed. "I think UK is becoming more and more attractive to students who want to do condensed matter research, especially after our Center for Advanced Materials was established," said doctoral student Tongfei Qi, who was involved in testing and adjusting UK's system after liquefier installation. "The research in Dr. Cao’s lab include everything from developing novel materials and synthesis single crystals to experimental studies of structural, magnetic, transport and thermal properties. We can cover a broad spectrum of materials and experimental probes."

Through a $4.5 million National Science Foundation Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research grant, Cao helped to establish the Center for Advanced Materials at UK last year. "We have the intellectual asset at the university, now we need to build the infrastructure," he said. "We want to be one of the best institutions with electronic materials, which will lead to some of the best research in the nation."

Besides distinguishing UK as a leader in condensed matter and materials research, the purchase of a helium liquefier will also save money. Over the past eight years, the cost of purchasing liquid helium commercially has almost quadrupled, increasing from approximately $2.50 to $10 per liter.

"I have to spend about $1,000 each week for liquid helium," explained Cao. "If all goes well, we could reduce the cost to $2 per liter, which would save 80 percent of the money we are currently spending on liquid helium."

"We also save time by eliminating liquid helium transfers, and we're recycling," added Qi.

While professors in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, as well as professors in UK’s Department of Chemistry will take advantage of this new resource, students will continue to be a part of the process. "After working with Dr. Cao, I have a clearer thought and understanding about my research," said Qi. "I learned a lot about how to do research and how to think."

For more information, contact Cao at or (859) 257-1997.