Helium to Hydrogen in the Lab

According to the Bureau of Land Management, crude helium prices have increased by 50% in the last 10 years, due to dwindling U.S. supplies. Consequently, many labs are substituting the conventional helium carrier gas supply for their gas chromatography (GC) systems with hydrogen.

Not all About Money

The price of the supply is not the only factor. Laboratories are discovering that the GC process can yield better results when hydrogen is used. For instance, in early 2008 the research and development lab of International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF), a producer of flavorings and fragrances that are used in everything from food to toiletries, opted for hydrogen in place of helium as its carrier gas.

For us it wasn’t all about finances. The main reason we made the change was because hydrogen allows us to speed up analysis, as is defined by the Van Deemter curve. By replacing our helium carrier gas with hydrogen, we could decrease the analysis time and achieve the same resolution as with helium.

Steve Toth, Research Investigator at IFF

IFF used three small hydrogen generators to provide combustion gas, which needed a supply of approximately 2 liters/hour. The laboratory was also using 30 GC systems, using different methods, all of which needed about 5 liters/hour of helium to function.

As a result, the lab had to be installed with a large hydrogen generator. The Proton OnSite® S Series hydrogen generation system was selected by the company.

A No-Brainer

We initially tested hydrogen as a carrier gas on one of our GC systems with an existing benchtop hydrogen generator, and results quickly proved that the decision would be a no-brainer – we could do more analysis in less time and it broadly supported the specific application processes we used - so we began to change all 30 systems over to hydrogen.

Steve Toth, Research Investigator at IFF

It took more than four months for IFF to complete this changeover. Fitting the new system was not a hard task, as the lab was already plumbed for small hydrogen generators. It was the setting of each system that took time. Toth stated that the translation software guides created by Agilent Technologies were helpful, but the process was still a long one. “We had to go from GC system to GC system and translate each method from helium to hydrogen.”

“Working in an applications-driven lab means you have a lot of different methods in operation and we had to change each one.” Troth observed that the lab has not been able change all its methods to hydrogen. IFF discovered that some methods that employed long-chain fatty acids did not operate with hydrogen because hydrogenation that occurred in the inlets. For those methods, IFF was still able to use helium as the carrier gas for some systems.

A Positive Experience

Toth added that the research lab at IFF has not looked back since changing carrier gases. In fact, most of IFF's other laboratories located in its main R&D location in Union Beach, New Jersey have also switched to hydrogen as the carrier gas for the majority of their GC systems.

The conversion from helium to hydrogen is growing throughout the laboratory marketplace. Proton OnSite is offering labs with numerous solutions this year, and has also seen a drastic increase in the request for nitrogen and zero generators.

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