Lancaster University is home to world first in pure helium

Prof Peter McClintock.
Prof Peter McClintock.
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A Lancaster University spin-off company is the only commercial supplier in the world for isotopically pure helium.

Lancaster Helium Ltd is based in the Low Temperature Physics Group with Dr Mark Giltrow, Prof Peter McClintock and Dr Malcolm Poole.

Prof McClintock said: “So far as I know, the only other helium isotopic purifier in the world is at the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico and that machine is apparently based on the Lancaster design.

“The He-4 we produce is perfectly pure! We were in the Guinness Book of Records for this achievement at one stage.”

The company’s largest contract is for the supply of isotopically pure He-4 to the Technical University of Munich for use in a helium gas cooled nuclear reactor.

Like many elements, helium comes in more than one variety or isotope. He-3 and He-4 have 1 and 2 neutrons in the nucleus respectively.

Naturally occurring helium is almost all He-4 but for some uses, even tiny traces of He-3 exert a huge influence and must be removed.

“We needed to do this for our own experiments on quantum vortices, starting in the 1980s.

“We also provided isotopically purified He-4 to fellow researchers who needed it, over many years – in France, Germany, Czech Republic, USA, Canada, Japan as well as locally to the Universities of Birmingham, Manchester, and Exeter.

“Then, a couple of years ago, the Technical University of Munich (TUM) requested much larger quantities and a five-year purchase contract so we created Lancaster Helium.

“The reason TUM need our product is that any He-3 impurities get converted to tritium (radioactive hydrogen) by reactor neutrons.

“Tritium leaking into the atmosphere it is not good for humans. So the company is reducing atmospheric pollution in Germany.”

Other uses for He-4 include ultra-low temperature experiments, where Lancaster University is also world leading.