When this inert noble gas turns to a liquid at -269°C (4 Kelvin) it provides an ideal sample environment for neutron scattering experiments, but as the shortage of helium turns from orange to red, cryostats must go green.
The sample environment team at ISIS have been working with Oxford Instruments to produce a new, dry cryostat with an aim to replace the course of cryogenics. The conventional cryostats such as Orange cryostat or Variox® are based on liquid helium and liquid nitrogen, and have been the only possible way to keep something cold for the past 40 years. However as helium prices rocket, this new dry cryostat prototype focuses on being environmentally sustainable.
It can be compared to a home fridge, as once plugged into an electricity supply the only other requirement is cooling water. Designed with nearly identical timing parameters as the Orange cryostat, such as the system cooling down, changing the sample stick and running down to the base temperature of the dilution refrigerator insert, this new prototype is the first of its kind.
Scientists will benefit from no longer needing technical instrument down-time caused by transfer of cryogens, as the temperature range and time intervals can be written in a script and entered electronically, and the dry cryostat can be left to run for the duration of the experiment.
The planned release date of the prototype in the user programme is early 2013, during the February cycle at ISIS in which there will be the first tests on neutron instruments. Once fully functional, Oxford Instruments will release a commercial product on the market which is anticipated to be embraced, globally.
While helium shortages may put an end to party balloons and comical voices, science can keep progressing thanks to new cryostat development.