Sustainability in research: The Nuclear Magnetic Resonance lab on finding creative solutions

When it comes to making research more sustainable, the best approaches are not always the obvious ones, says an NMR lab manager
Tara Sprules helped lead the Helium Recovery Project, which was funded by the Sustainability Projects Fund in 2020. Siddhi Aubeeluck Siddhi Aubeeluck

Helium is probably not the first thing that comes to mind for most people when they think about recycling – unless they’re experimental chemists working in McGill’s Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) facilities.

Chemists, biochemists, and other researchers use NMR spectrometers to learn more about the atomic structure of a molecule or material they have synthesized or isolated. Similar to an MRI, a small sample is placed inside a very strong magnet, where signals are generated to provide information about the sample’s structure, purity, and other characteristics. To create this magnetic field, electrons flow through a superconducting wire, which must be continually immersed in liquid helium at a temperature of 4 Kelvin (-269 C). Over time, the liquid helium evaporates and needs to be replenished at regular intervals.

In response to the rising price of helium in 2018, Tara Sprules, PhD, and Robin Stein, PhD, began searching for ways to lower the cost of maintaining the eight NMR spectrometers in their facilities. This is when they learned about helium recycling systems. In 2020, the NMR lab partnered with the Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF) to install a helium recovery system in their laboratory with the goal of reducing how much of this precious resource they purchased and wasted. It is now estimated that the lab recycles between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of the liquid helium it uses.

In conversation with the Office of Sustainability, NMR Researcher and Facility Manager Tara Sprules reflected on how her lab had to think outside the box when it came to being more sustainable.

Why was recycling helium at the NMR lab a priority for you?

We often think about recycling plastic and trying to minimize disposable materials as obvious first steps in the lab. Few people immediately jump in and think of recycling gas, but the reality is that it’s quite effective. And since extracting and storing helium is very resource intensive, recycling it is both financially and environmentally sustainable.

Liquid helium is actually a crucial resource in a lot of fields, not just chemical research. It’s used a lot in semiconductor research and for MRI imaging in hospitals. In industrial settings, people can usually afford to buy more helium, but in universities and hospitals it’s not always so simple. So, this type of recovery system has important applications beyond just chemistry labs, for healthcare and technology.

[Learn more about the Helium Recovery System by watching the video at the end of this article]

Have you noticed a shift in how people think about sustainability in laboratory settings?

I think the projects being worked on now really show that there are a lot of ways you can be sustainable beyond what feels immediately obvious. It’s nice to see all the creative actions being incorporated to try to make research more sustainable. It’s tough with chemistry because you can’t just rinse out and reuse your beaker. You have to make sure it’s not at all contaminated. But I think the work being done by members of the Green Labs Initiative at McGill to sanitize glass systems and recycle plastics is really neat and hopefully will be helpful for units who use a lot of these materials.

What advice would you give to other laboratories for how to make their research more sustainable?

I would say to keep an open mind and reach out to the scientific community. I know it’s unnerving to make changes to these critical and expensive instruments. In our case, we definitely had concerns that hooking up a helium recovery system to these very delicate instruments could transmit vibrations and affect a researcher’s measurements. The way that we pushed through our hesitation was by talking to other people around the world who were already doing this successfully.

So, as much as possible, try to reach out to other people with similar problems and see how they’ve addressed them. I don’t think we would have gotten this far without having that support. And the best part is this community of support is only getting bigger and bigger.

To help your lab implement more sustainable practices, consult the Sustainable Labs Guide and sign your lab up for the International Freezer Challenge. Additionally, any student, staff, or faculty member can apply to the Sustainability Projects Fund to support their lab’s green transition.

Watch the video below to learn more about the Helium Recovery System