Why labs are replacing Helium with Hydrogen in Gas Chromatography

Helium – It’s not just for balloons…

Helium is one of the most common and lightest elements in the universe. However, Helium is not gravitationally bound to the earth and is constantly lost to space. This means Helium needs to be commercially recovered from natural gas deposits. The Helium industry rides on the coattails of fossil fuels so to speak.

Helium is probably most commonly known as the stuff that makes our balloons float and let’s be honest, who hasn’t tried bursting a balloon, sucking in the air to give you that high pitched squeak that would make even the stoniest of faces laugh! But Helium is used for much more than that and with the current demand exceeding production, alternatives must be sought.

If you want to know more about the helium shortage and how this occurred you can read more on https://www.gasworld.com/helium-supply-tightening-again/2014167.article

There are various alternatives to Helium depending on the application it is being used for.

Medical uses

The boiling point of Helium is closer to absolute zero than that of any other element, and as such it is used as a cooling medium in large magnet containing equipment, like MRI’s in hospitals worldwide. Liquid Nitrogen can be used as an alternative in some cooling systems.

Deep Sea Diving

In deep sea diving, Helium added to Oxygen gives a Nitrogen free environment which stops divers developing Nitrogen narcosis or as it’s more commonly known as ‘the bends’. Replacing Helium with Hydrogen in this application would also work.

Pressurising fuel tanks

Helium is used to pressurise the fuel tanks of liquid fuel rockets and in supersonic wind tunnels again this can be replaced by liquid Nitrogen.

Inert gas

Where Helium is used as an inert gas shield for arc wielding, this can be replaced by either Argon or Helium depending on the type of metal being wielded.

Gas Chromatography is another application where Helium is widely used.

Simply explained, Chromatography is when a gas/liquid moves (known as the mobile phase) over the surface of a liquid/solid (known as the stationary phase). As the mobile phase moves it separates out into its components on the stationary phase.

replacing Helium with Hydrogen in Gas Chromatography

Paper chromatography pictured is an example of how the mobile phase moves over the stationary phase.

Gas chromatography (GC) is a largely automated type of chemical analysis you can do with a sophisticated piece of laboratory equipment called, a gas chromatograph machine.

First, a tiny sample of the mixture of substances being studied is placed in a syringe and injected into the machine. The components of the mixture are heated and instantly vaporize. Next, we add a carrier (the eluent), which is simply a neutral gas such as hydrogen or helium, designed to help the gases in our sample move through the column. In this case, the column is a thin glass or metal tube usually filled with a liquid that has a high boiling point (or sometimes a gel or an adsorbent solid). As the mixture travels through the column, it’s adsorbed and separates out into its components. Each component emerges in turn from the end of the column and moves past an electronic detector (sometimes a mass spectrometer), which identifies it and prints a peak on a chart. The final chart has a series of peaks that correspond to all the substances in the mixture. Gas chromatography is sometimes called vapour-phase chromatography (VPC) or gas-liquid partition chromatography (GLPC). (Read more on the process and its uses at https://www.explainthatstuff.com/chromatography.html )

Replacing Helium with Hydrogen in Gas Chromatography

Due to the decrease in Helium availability, many labs are now switching to Hydrogen as a GC carrier gas.

Benefits of Hydrogen over Helium 

  • Increased speed thereby increasing the throughput of a laboratory.
  • It is possible to lower the maximum temperature needed for the analysis or remain at those temperatures for shorter periods.
  • Lower temperatures lead to less column bleed resulting in longer column life.
  • Hydrogen is a green gas in that its production does not contribute to environmental pollution.
  • The cost of hydrogen is significantly lower than that of helium.
  • Since hydrogen is generated from the electrolysis of water, there is no need to worry about availability.

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