28 December 2015

Fill 'er up with helium

Jesus Torres Camacho mans the helium retrieval station. Jesus Torres Camacho mans the helium retrieval station.

This week at the lab is pretty quiet. Most of the staff is off for the holidays.

But not Jesus Torres Camacho and Dan Freeman — because science never sleeps.

As we head into the first, and statistically coldest, month of the year (at least in Florida), Camacho and Freeman will be at the MagLab doing their part to keep things frosty.

The pair are members of the MagLab’s cryogenics team, making sure the lab’s scientists and magnets have enough liquid helium and liquid nitrogen to keep the experiments going. All the lab’s superconducting magnets require cryogens, as do many of the experiments run here: Scientists doing low-temperature physics often want to put their samples in a deep freeze (temperatures often just above absolute zero) in order to observe special phenomena. The lab uses about 435,000 liters (114,915 gallons) of liquid helium a year (much of which is recycled), and about four times as much liquid nitrogen.

That's where the cryogenics team comes in, converting helium from gas to a frigid liquid with our helium liquefier and helping distribute it across the 370,000-square-foot lab through an army of some 55 dewars — basically Thermoses on steroids and wheels — containing 100 to 500 liters (26 to 132 gallons) of the stuff.

On an average day, about a dozen scientists, technicians, postdocs or graduate students come to the lab’s "helium retrieval station," located in the DC Field Facility, to pick up a newly refilled stainless steel dewar, and wheel it through the hallways back to their experiments and instruments. It works out to about 1,200 liters (317 gallons) of helium a day.

Text by Kristen Coyne

Last modified on 28 December 2015