Many times I feel like the same problems are presented to me again and again; Problems that were solved years ago. It must have something to do with getting older. Noooo!
Please, let me elaborate and start this blog post off in a more positive manner: familiar problems rise to the surface from time to time and it is, in fact, very nice to have the solution at hand.
One reoccurring issue is helium supply in the laboratory. We are all aware that helium is a carrier gas for many applications in GC and GC-MS. To put it bluntly: no helium means no analysis, which is practically a nightmare for all laboratories.
This year we are, again, facing a helium shortage and have already seen letters from providers with a warning that their supply might be delayed. According to the industry, it may become a continuous problem considering helium is one of the elements considered to be in danger of complete depletion.
In fact, helium is mined as a byproduct of uranium and cannot be produced or manufactured. There are only three major sources of helium in the world, and in the past the industry experienced a problematic supply from time to time. In 2012, there was a global helium shortage that was flagged across the laboratory world. Since then, a new possible source was discovered and it was back to business-as-usual.
It is convenient to play the blame game in such matters. We ask the question, “Who is using all this precious helium?” The normal consumer only knows helium as a gas used for inflating balloons. One might wonder if there has been a craze for children’s balloons recently. The answer is a bit more complicated: Helium is used for diagnostic purposes and is an important element to perform MRI . I am sure we all can agree that medical images are a key aspect for public health and until there is a good alternative for helium use in advanced medical imagery, we will have to continue using helium in MRI scanning.
So, we need to look to our own industry for helium alternatives as a carrier gases. One alternative is switching to hydrogen as a carrier gas. The main benefit is that hydrogen allows for fast chromatography and you can potentially speed up your analysis. One of the other great things about hydrogen is that it can be produced in the lab. The downside, however, is that hydrogen is quite explosive and extra measures need to be taken to prevent accidents from happening in the laboratory. But these matters can be solved by modern electronics.
So why are we not seeing hydrogen being used in the lab all the time? The answer: method transfer. Most of the existing methodology is based on helium use. Switching to hydrogen would require all the methods to be re-optimized and re- validated. Additionally, when you are using a mass spectrometer, sensitivity drops due to the fact that hydrogen is, simply put, a smaller molecule and is more difficult to pump away in the vacuum of the MS.
Another alternative is using the Thermo Scientific Helium Saver.
Here’s how it works: the carrier gas in the separating column is still helium, but the gas that is needed for flushing the injector is nitrogen. The result? No need for method transfer, no loss of sensitivity for the MS, and a huge helium savings.
The principle is as simple as it is elegant and the savings on gas is tremendous. For most applications the carrier gas flow is 1-2 ml/min and the split flow is 25-50 ml/min, leading to a helium consumption of at least 26ml/min. With the helium saver, the consumption is only the carrier gas flow so it uses 25 times less as in most standard applications.