With a seemingly endless list of shortages of basic items trotted across newsfeeds on a daily basis, you’d be pardoned for not noticing any one shortage in particular. But in among the shortages of everything from eggs to fertilizers to sriracha sauce has been a growing realization that we may actually be running out of something so fundamental that it could have repercussions that will be felt across all aspects of our technological society: helium.
The degree to which helium is central to almost every aspect of daily life is hard to overstate. Helium’s unique properties, like the fact that it remains liquid at just a few degrees above absolute zero, contribute to its use in countless industrial processes. From leak detection and welding to silicon wafer production and cooling the superconducting magnets that make magnetic resonance imaging possible, helium has become entrenched in technology in a way that belies its relative scarcity.
But where does helium come from? As we’ll see, the second lightest element on the periodic table is not easy to come by, and considerable effort goes into extracting and purifying it enough for industrial use. While great strides are being made toward improved methods of extraction and the discovery of new deposits, for all practical purposes helium is a non-renewable resource for which there are no substitutes. So it pays to know a thing or two about how we get our hands on it.
Continue reading “Mining And Refining: Helium”
To say that a lot has happened in the year since the COVID-19 pandemic started is an understatement of epic proportions, so much so that it may be hard to remember how the hardware hacking community responded during those early days, with mass-produced PPE, homebrew ventilators and the like. But we don’t recall seeing too many attempts to build something like this DIY oxygen concentrator during that initial build-out phase.
Given the simplicity and efficacy of the design, dubbed OxiKit, it seems strange that we didn’t see more of these devices. OxiKit uses zeolite, a porous mineral that can be used as a molecular sieve. The tiny beads are packed into columns made from hardware store PVC pipes and fittings and connected to an oil-less air compressor through some solenoid-controlled pneumatic valves. After being cooled in a coil of copper pipe, the compressed air is forced through one zeolite column, which preferentially retains the nitrogen while letting the oxygen pass through. The oxygen stream is split, with part going into a buffer tank and part going into the outlet of the second zeolite column, where it forces the adsorbed nitrogen to be released. An Arduino controls the valves that alternate the gas flow back and forth, resulting in 15 liters per minute of 96% pure oxygen.
OxiKit isn’t optimized as a commercial oxygen concentrator is, so it’s not particularly quiet. But it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than a commercial unit, and an easy build for most hackers. OxiKit’s designs are all open source, but they do sell kits and some of the harder-to-source parts and supplies, like the zeolite. We’d be tempted to build something like this just because the technology is so neat; having a source of high-flow oxygen available isn’t a bad idea, either.