Helium Shortage: Perspectives and Challenges

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Helium is used for MRI diagnostic technique. Photo by Thomas23 on Flickr.

Helium is used for MRI diagnostics. Photo by Thomas23 on Flickr.

High Demand For Helium: Can We Cope?

For all the applications described above, helium demand and consumption has been increasing in recent years. For instance, according to the US Geological Survey, in 2012, more than 50 billion liters of helium was used in the US alone. However, meeting such a high demand has been proving to be difficult.

Helium Drifting Away

There are several reasons for the shortage of helium. One is the increasing demand. Another is the loss associated with its use. Because of its low density, helium does not get trapped in the atmosphere. This means that once helium is released into the air, for instance from the cooling pipes of a superconducting magnet, or from a balloon, it will continue to rise until it leaves the atmosphere, drifting away from the Earth and is lost forever.

Chemical & Engineering News Senior Correspondent Marc S. Reisch addressed this loss in an article earlier this month. Mr. Reisch told Decoded Science: “For scientists, these losses were considered acceptable in the past when He availability was not a problem. Today, scientists are finding those losses more difficult to shrug off.”

To avoid losing Helium, appropriate equipment that captures the released gas is needed, as is successive recycling and purification. Because the process is quite complex, the instrument that does this is very expensive; a machine capable of  recovering 15 liters of helium per day would cost about $100 000. The high cost makes recovery worthwhile for some applications in which large amounts of gas are used, such as superconducting magnets. In other cases where smaller quantities are used, such as GC-MS instrumentation, the recovery is not very practical and the economic benefits are limited.

Helium is transported by pipelines. Photo by Carl Chapman on Flickr.

Helium is transported by pipelines. Photo by Carl Chapman on Flickr.

Helium Supplies

Another reason for the current shortage is the limited number of helium sources.

Helium is usually extracted from natural gases; there are helium reserves available in several countries, including the US, Russia, Algeria, Qatar and Iran. Currently, however, no helium is extracted from most of these reserves. The majority of He comes from the US, which supplies almost 70% of the total helium used worldwide.

In this situation, even brief suspensions of supplies can cause problems. Mr. Reisch explained:

“Last July, the Bureau of Land Management, a government agency which controls a large portion of U.S. helium supplies, shut down its pipeline and storage facilities for a two-week maintenance period. The interruption caused shortages and some institutions were unable to get helium to maintain their equipment. In one instance, at the University of Nebraska, a $500,000 NMR magnet became a pile of junk when the school was unable to obtain helium needed to keep a leaky instrument from overheating.”

Reduced Helium Sources: Long-Term Plans

As for the future, the outlook is not clear. Two new suppliers, in Qatar and Wyoming, have recently started; this should help avoid, or at least minimize, unexpected shortages. Overall, however, the problem still remains to be addressed.

According to Mr. Reisch,“Scientists are desperate for long-term solutions. And while the technology to capture and recover helium for reuse is available, it can be complex and costly. For GC-MS, instrument users can in many cases switch to hydrogen (H2) instead of He. But methodologies have to be changed and the potential flammability of helium has to be dealt with.”

Sources

Reisch, M.S. Coping with helium shortage. (2013). Chemical and Engineering News, 91(5), 18-19. Accessed February 2013.

US Geological Survey. Helium: Statistics and Information. (2013). Accessed February 2013.

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