"Yeah, but what do you DO at NIST?"

I'm often asked what I do at NIST. Most people know that the atomic clock is housed in my facility, but what they don't know is that there's hundreds of other exciting science experiments taking place daily on the sprawling Department of Commerce site, nestled up near the base of Boulder's magnificent flatirons. When the building now known as the Katharine Blodgett Gebbie Laboratory was being erected (take a moment and release inner 6th grader giggles), we had the foresight and were granted the go-ahead to include a helium recovery system in the structure (thanks Obama)! This was a major necessity for the site, not only for the many experiments that require the low temperature environment that liquid helium provides, but also because helium is a non-renewable resource on our planet. Once that party balloon pops, people, that bit of helium escapes our atmosphere and is gone forever, forever... forever...!

Filling a Dewar with liquid helium
For the lion's share of my career, 1987-2013, I was an electronics technician in a project that characterized superconductors, the mystical wires that carry thousands of amps of DC current with no resistance. The types of superconductors that we studied were the low-temperature kind employed today in electromagnets such as what you would find in an MRI machine. Now for these superconducting wires to put on their capes and do their superconducting thing, they must be cooled down to around 9 Kelvin (-443 °F) or below. This is achieved by using liquid helium which provides a 4 Kelvin environment.

While the research of low-temperature superconductors was winding down at NIST, the new building was going up and our helium recovery system was going in. When the Gebbie laboratory opened in April 2012, we had the new capability of recapturing the helium gas that was exhausted from our experiments and reprocessing it into liquid to use again in other experiments. That's what brings me to my present station at one of the finest science institutions of our nation. I'm the guy running NIST-Boulder's helium recovery and liquefaction facility, herding and wrangling helium atoms, keeping them safe and happy here with us on Earth. My weekly tasks include, but are not limited to:

  • Taking roll call of where all the helium is. Which atoms are in gas form and which ones are in liquid form? When totaled, it is equivalent to ~3000 liquid liters of helium.
  • Determining and keeping a pulse the scientists' needs to keep their important research steaming ahead.
  • Filling the containers (called Dewars) with the cold liquid and delivering to their labs.
  • Keeping some of the research magnets in my area filled with the magic cold juice.
  • Running the helium liquefier to convert all the recovered gas back into liquid.
  • Hunting down escape routes for the tricky little helium atoms with a handheld leak detector.
  • and of course, doing all of the above while keeping safety at the forefront!
So there you have it, the answer to your burning question of "what the fuck do you do there?" What about you? What's your job?

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