AFCryo, Cryomech Collaborate to Provide Helium Recovery, LN2 Generation

Beginning last year, AFCryo (CSA CSM), a division of Fabrum Solutions, and Cryomech (CSA CSM) worked collaboratively to design and supply a helium recovery system and a liquid nitrogen generation system at the nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) laboratory at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. While both companies produce cryocoolers and liquefaction equipment, the two realized that collaborative effort was the right approach. Together, they selected, designed and installed the right technology for the varied applications within the project to deliver a full laboratory solution.

The NMR facility consists of several NMR spectrometers hosted in the Chemistry and Physics department and boasts one of the largest NMR suites in New Zealand, including five magnets operating between 400 MHz and 600 MHz. The two 500 and one 600 MHz instruments are used primarily for postgraduate research in chemistry. The other two systems, both operating at 400 MHz, are more commonly used to study physical processes such as rheometry and diffusion. Recently, the university decided the facility was due for an upgrade.

When Ian Vorster, lab manager and technician at the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, was upgrading the university’s lab, an idea occurred to him: why not incorporate a liquid helium recovery system for the magnet’s helium boiloff in the lab. “The already high cost of getting liquid helium to cool the magnets is exacerbated by the added shipping costs of getting anything to New Zealand,” Vorster said. “So, I thought, ‘Let’s minimize the need for helium shipments altogether by installing our own helium recovery system.’” He calculated that the system would pay for itself after five years; a calculation that was well received by the university, which granted funding for the project.

Vorster and his team contacted Cryomech, a Syracuse NY-based company, to handle the helium recovery. John Ketcham, an engineer at Cryomech, was sent to Wellington to research the project and develop a plan for the system. The final installation and commission took less than three days. Ketcham realized that, while Cryomech was able to handle the project, the company’s focus on customer support would be hindered by geographic distance. They decided to call upon one of their partners, AFCryo, a New Zealand-based company with whom a distribution agreement already existed. Nigel Bartlett and Christopher Boyle of Fabrum Solutions, AFCryo’s parent company, joined the project to act as more central representatives—including monitoring the system from Christchurch, New Zealand. “AFCryo is fantastic,” Ketcham stated. “Our companies’ ideas align, their systems are extremely reliable and their proximity to the project made them our ‘go- to’ partners throughout the process.”

While the helium recovery system was being designed, Vorster and the university decided to undertake an additional value-adding project for the lab in the form of a liquefaction and reliquefaction system for nitrogen. “We realized the amount of potential in the helium recovery system and thought that we could expand upon it by adding another valuable resource for the whole chemistry and physics department,” says Vorster. “As it turned out, AFCryo had the right team to accomplish the job.”Now, the industry duo was working side-by-side to develop two systems for the lab. “Installation was seamless,” Ketcham recalled. “AFCryo’s team managed the installation with no site visit being required from anyone at Cryomech. It was a unified customer experience delivered from the other side of the world.”

The air-to-liquid system is fully automatic, including an auto on/off cycle, and fills a bulk storage dewar in the plant room, and a mobile dewar with liquid nitrogen at the lab. The lab not only uses but distributes the nitrogen to other users on campus. Some of that liquid nitrogen even ends up at the
helium recovery system for purifying the helium.

The project has been paying off. With the installation completed this January, the school says the system has already paid for itself—in a matter of months rather than the projected five-year return. With the global shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Wellington has become a central location for New Zealand’s specialist NMR testing due to its self- sufficiency in helium and liquid nitrogen needs.

Both AFCryo and Cryomech attribute the project’s success to their mutual commitment to the final goal and to providing “the highest quality products.” Vorster and the lab are excited to have these systems at their disposal and to be able to provide them to surrounding institutions. According to Vorster, “It was remarkable work.”,