Posted in | Materials Processing

Global Collaboration to Develop a System to Liquefy and Recover Liquid Helium

The Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the University of Zaragoza and the U.S. company GWR Instruments announced today that they have entered into a global collaboration agreement with Quantum Design International to license, commercialize and further develop a system to liquefy and recover liquid Helium used in research, industry and medical laboratories worldwide.

This technology, developed jointly by Conrado Rillo and his team at the University of Zaragoza, CSIC and GWR Instruments, makes it possible to recover and liquefy nearly 100% of the liquid Helium used in cryogenic research and medical equipment. In addition, Advanced Technology Liquefiers (ATL's) allow scientists and medical laboratory professionals to produce liquid Helium from Helium gas, thereby removing the previous requirement to start operations with liquid Helium, a costly and limited natural resource.

Quantum Design International, one of the leading manufacturers and worldwide distributors of scientific measurement instruments, has the exclusive worldwide license to manufacture and distribute the ATL systems.

This new ATL technology comes at a time when laboratories and medical facilities are struggling to obtain and afford the liquid Helium that is vital to their ongoing efforts. This efficient method of recovering and liquefying Helium will be of great value to those small and medium sized operations presently struggling with their supply of liquid and gaseous Helium. For example, products based on ATL technology have enabled the University of Zaragoza to recycle nearly 100% of the Helium used in much of its research equipment the over the past several months.

"The liquefier technology developed by Zaragoza and GWR is well-aligned with Quantum Design's expertise in cryogenic research and instrumentation," said Dr. Ronald Sager, Ph.D., CEO of Quantum Design International. "We look forward to working with the University of Zaragoza scientific team to employ this technology to address the dwindling global supply of liquid Helium." Dr. Sager added, "We are pleased to collaborate with Prof. Rillo and his team at Zaragoza who have a proven track record in the area of Helium recovery and liquefaction to conserve and recycle this important resource."

The University of Zaragoza and Quantum Design International are now working together to improve and expand the ATL technology. The University of Zaragoza has received up-front licensing fees for the technology from Quantum Design International as well as significant funding for further research and development work by Prof. Conrado's team. In addition, the University of Zaragoza, CSIC and GWR will receive royalties on future sales of the technology.


Helium is a fossil gas that is obtained by separation from the natural gas found in deposits worldwide. Helium is a strategic resource that is limited and expensive and which, in a liquid state, can cost up to 40 euros per liter, while in a gaseous state it can cost between 10 and 30 euros per cubic meter.

The ATL technology will make it possible to reduce the consumption of this expensive, limited strategic resource that is used in research (liquid and gas), medical equipment (liquid) and in industry (liquid and gas), which will mean a considerable financial saving to those who use this scarce, expensive element.

This new development will also make it possible to produce liquid Helium to suit demand, thereby avoiding current losses associated with large-scale infrastructures that service small and medium sized laboratories in universities and business such as magnetic resonance and magnetic encephalographic facilities in hospitals.

Recovering and liquefying Helium has been a challenge for over a century. On a large scale it has been commercially resolved for large-scale demand of over 500 liters of liquid Helium per day. However, on a small scale of less than 500 liters per day there were no commercially acceptable solutions.

How the idea arose

The need to have an efficient liquefier and to renew the industrial plant of the University of Zaragoza led Prof. Conrado Rillo, Professor of Research at the Material Science Institute of Aragon (ICMA), the CSIC and the University of Zaragoza and Director of the Cryogenic Liquids Laboratory of the University of Zaragoza, in 2004, to set up an efficiency study and later, in 2006, a research project that resulted in this new technology. For some months now the University of Zaragoza has been recovering nearly 100% of the Helium consumed in a substantial part of its research equipment, by using the commercial version of this technology.

The University of Zaragoza was one of the first universities to produce liquid Helium in the 1970s. This development by the ICMA and University of Zaragoza researchers was not a question of luck. It was Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, the Dutch physicist and discoverer of superconductivity and winner of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1913, who was the first scientist to obtain a small quantity of liquid Helium in 1908. The first commercial liquefiers appeared in the 1950s. At the University of Zaragoza in the 1970s the first group was established at a Spanish university dedicated to research into the gas at extremely low temperatures and this led it to becoming one of the first to produce liquid Helium at the facilities of the Faculty of Sciences, thanks to a Helium liquefier lent by the University of Hoboken, USA, in 1971. Since then the Laboratory for Solid State Physics at Low Temperatures of the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Zaragoza with the ICMA have produced impressive results in superconductivity, magnetism and molecular dynamics, becoming pioneers in the development of physics at low temperatures in Spain. In order to carry out this research it is necessary to have cold production system techniques, always using liquid Helium.

For the implementation of this new technology in its commercial version, the research group has obtained financing from the Department of Industry of the Regional Government of Aragon. Thanks to this financing, the University of Zaragoza now has the appropriate infrastructure of three entire commercial plants; one for the recovery of used gas in the R&D building of the Río Ebro campus, another to recover and liquefy the gas from the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance equipment in the Faculty of Sciences and another to recover and liquefy the gas from the low-temperature equipment and from the Physical Measurements Laboratory, also in the Faculty of Sciences.

Consumption and costs

One of these pieces of equipment can consume between 5 and 15 liters per day, which represents an average annual consumption ranging from 1,800 to 5,500 liters per year for each piece of equipment. The University of Zaragoza currently requires between 50 and 100 liters per day, averaging close to 25,000 liters per year. Each liquefier will produce approximately 8,000 liters a year using only 7 kW of electricity. By recovering 100% of used Helium, the cost of each piece of equipment could be recouped in less than two years, meaning that the final cost of the Helium would be reduced to the cost of the electricity consumed to produce it, approximately €1/liter.

The ATL technology developed by the University of Zaragoza, CSIC and GWR Instruments, and further developments already carried out at both University of Zaragoza and Quantum Design International, have been exclusively licensed to Quantum Design International, who will manufacture, distribute and commercially exploited the technology. An agreement to license the ATL technology was signed on March 2, 2011.

The technology has been initially protected by two patents applications currently pending review at the PCT and a variety of national patent offices, one regarding recovery plants and another regarding the liquefying technique. Both patent applications and any resulting patents have been licensed to Quantum Design International through its American office. License fees and royalties paid by Quantum Design International are being divided into three equal parts between the CSIC, the University of Zaragoza and GWR Instruments.

The transfer of technology and regional impact

Quantum Design has contracted for the transfer of technology through the Office for the Transfer of Research Results at the University of Zaragoza. Some of the components of the liquefying plant whose first prototypes were developed in the Research Support Service (SAI) at the University of Zaragoza are now manufactured by the Aragon company Integración y Control (I&C), located in Muel. Quantum Design currently purchases these components from I&C. The first two commercial liquefier plants based on the ATL technology were installed at University of California in Santa Cruz and University of California in San Diego, and a third is now operating at the University of Denver (Colorado). The first European commercial plant will be set up at the end of February in San Sebastian.

Furthermore I&C, in collaboration with the University of Zaragoza research team, has recently received financial support from the Spanish government INNPACTO program, to built an industrial liquid Helium pilot plant in Zaragoza. The objective of the project is to continue further development of the ATL technology and to assist commercializing the technology in Europe. I&C will be working in close cooperation with LOT-Quantum Design, the European branch of Quantum Design.


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