2022 Helium Shortage and How to Use Hydrogen Instead as Your Gas Chromatography Carrier Gas

Aug 8, 2022

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Have you heard about the helium shortage in 2022? Well if you haven’t you’re about to find out about it the next time you try to buy some helium.

There’s a helium shortage in the world and there’s a sort of a complex discussion as to why. But don’t worry. There are alternatives to helium as a GC carrier gas.

Why is There a Helium Shortage?

First couple of statements, helium is a non-renewable natural resource. All the helium we have on this planet was made by mother nature herself 30 million years ago in the belly of the earth from nuclear decay. We have a stockpile of helium. We’ll never get any more and helium has this terrible characteristic of what’s called an escape velocity. So if you’ve got a big pocket of helium underground and you poke a hole in the ground, the helium escapes and it goes to outer space.

Imagine if you poked a hole in a lake and all the water escaped to the moon! We would run low on water very quickly.  That’s what happens when we use helium.  And as mentioned, we have a limited amount of helium.  In addition there are supply outages that have led to a shortage of helium on the market. Consequently it is becoming more expensive and suppliers are  rationing the amount of helium we get.

What Carrier Gas Alternatives Exist for Helium?

So how can we deal with that as chromatographers? Remember in gas chromatography the primary carrier gas we use is helium. Here in the United states about 80% of all GCs run helium. So what if we had to switch away from helium or what if you want to switch away from helium? We have a couple of alternatives.

Hydrogen is an excellent alternative. It’s our favorite. It’s all chromatographer’s favorite because it will give us better chromatography in a shorter amount of time compared to helium. Our other option is nitrogen. Nitrogen is not as good in terms of efficiency, in terms of generating skinny peaks. So from a chromatographic perspective we love the idea of switching to hydrogen. 

So if you’re interested in this, check out my free on-demand chromatography training. You will find my “How to Switch from Helium to Hydrogen in One Simple Step” webinar. It’s about a 45-minute video. It’s excellent because we actually do it. I stand in front of a GC and we actually change the GC in real time from helium to hydrogen and show you how to do it. 

When I wrote the first version of that presentation, I joked that the name was “How to Switch from Helium to Hydrogen in Three Easy Steps” and after writing it I realized there’s only one step. So here’s how to switch from helium to hydrogen.

How to Switch Your GC Carrier Gas from Helium to Hydrogen in One Simple Step

Step one, make the switch and tell the GC you made the switch. 

The GC needs to know what your carrier gas is because based on the viscosity of that carrier gas, based on the diffusivity, it will change the way it sets its parameters – it sets its pressure. So tell the GC that you are using hydrogen, switch to hydrogen. That’s all you need to do. If you simply do that you will get the exact same chromatography, the same retention times, the same efficiencies, the same areas, the same everything, by using hydrogen.

If you want to take advantage of the fact that you are using hydrogen, if you want to play the smart role then what you want to do is switch to hydrogen and then double your linear velocity. People think of that as the flow rate through the column but essentially linear velocity is a much better term. If you double your linear velocity you will cut your analysis time in half and still get the same results. 

So let me just recap that for you. If you want to switch to hydrogen simply make the switch then tell the GC on the front panel i’ve switched to hydrogen, and from then on don’t make any other changes. Everything will work fine. 

Take Advantage of Hydrogen’s Excellent Van Deemter Curve

If you want to take advantage of the fact that hydrogen gives skinnier peaks then you can double the linear velocity and get the same result in half the time. 

So when you switch to hydrogen one of my biggest recommendations is to use a hydrogen generator.  Here’s why: switching to hydrogen cylinders can be dangerous. Hydrogen  is an explosive material after all.  But if you get a hydrogen generator then there’s virtually no risk of an explosion.  In fact we call our hydrogen generator a house plant. There’s a plant sitting on top of it because once a week we dump a pitcher of water in it and that’s all we do to maintain it. This hydrogen generator will generate high purity hydrogen, seven nines, 99.99999% hydrogen. It generates it at 1300 mL a minute at 175 psi. Essentially all 15 of my GCs are being supplied by this one hydrogen generator for fuel. Now we could also use that same hydrogen as the  carrier gas for gas chromatography. So I have a couple of my GCs that I’ve hooked up with valves in the back so we could switch back and forth from helium to hydrogen. 

Watch Dr. Polite Switch a Gas Chromatograph Carrier Gas from Helium to Hydrogen

If you want to learn more about switching from helium to hydrogen, come join us at Axion labs for one of our courses or check out our webinar called “How to switch from helium to hydrogen in one simple step”

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