SP0278: Helium Recovery for Brain Imaging Platform

Status: Approved June 2021 -  


Contribution to the renovation costs necessary to install a 100%-efficiency helium recycling system for McGill's magnetoencephalography core facility at the McConnell Brain Imaging Center (The Neuro).

Project Number







PDF icon SP0278 Application


Full Project Description

McGill's MEG Unit hosts a magnetoencephalography instrument that measures the femtotesla magnetic fields generated by neural electrical activity to produce images of brain functions at the millisecond timescale. This capacity is unique amongst neuroimaging technologies. The fields are so tiny that specialized sensing technology is required, based on the principles of quantum physics. To operate, the sensors must be cooled down to superconducting temperatures with liquid helium. No other refrigeration system can be considered, due to mechanical noise. The MEG system boils off 5,000 L of liquid helium every year and needs to be refilled twice a week. With recent helium prices, the unit’s yearly supply costs have surged from $50K to $130K, which jeopardizes its operations and the access for about 50 McGill researchers and students to a unique scientific instrument (only 200 worldwide).

The only fully sustainable solution to the chronic issue of helium supply is to install a recovery and recycling system for this non-renewable resource. In close collaboration with the MEG system vendor, we have identified a recovery system with the advantage of recovering 100% of the helium in a closed-loop fashion. Overall, the solution would reduce helium costs and intervention of specialized personnel down to virtually zero. This solution would also reduce entirely the carbon emissions due to transportation of our weekly deliveries. By contributing to the reduction of global helium demand, this project would also strengthen McGill’s continued leadership in neuroscience, Canada’s strategic independence, and ensure more sustainable supply conditions for other critical uses of helium (e.g., in hospitals).

We were successful in obtaining the major portion of the funds to purchase and install the recovery system via a platform grant from Brain-Canada ($430,000), including $40,000 for the necessary renovations (after consultation with building specialists). Unfortunately, these costs have been revised dramatically after the completion of the full renovation planning phase, which involved external professionals and considering the current market surge in construction costs. These costs are now estimated at about $180,000, which jeopardized the realization of the project and the goals of sustainable operations at McGill. We are thankful that the McConnell Brain Imaging Centre and The Neuro were able to contribute about $30,000 additional funds, the Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences another $30,000. We are much grateful for the support from SPF in the amount of $80,000, which will secure the realization of the project.

The project is expected to be fully executed in the Winter of 2022, with full recycling of helium starting immediately.

Connect with this project


Sylvain Baillet
Back to top