Helium Shortage: Situation Update One Year Later


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Helium gas is essential for many applications. Phot by Pslawinski.

Helium gas is essential for many applications. Image courtesy of Pslawinski.

About one year ago Decoded Science reported on the helium shortage and the possible impact this could have on several sectors, such as medicine and other scientific areas.

Now, one year later, we present an update on the situation.

2013: Difficult Year for Helium

2013 was a difficult year for helium production, and in which the situation almost reached a point of no return.

The reason for this was the feared shutdown of the Federal Helium Reserve; this is one of the main helium world producers.

The Federal Helium Reserve is located in Texas, and operated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). It supplies 30 % of the world and 42 % of the U.S. helium.

Federal Helium Reserve Shutdown

The Federal Helium Reserve shutdown was a consequence of the Helium Privatization Act, a law approved in 1996. At the time, there was less interest in helium production, as it was not considered essential for the defence industry anymore, and its technological importance was less relevant and understood.

According to this law, BLM was supposed to continue selling helium to pay off the debt accumulated over the years; once the debt was paid, the facility was supposed to shut down and stopping supplying the helium.

This shutdown was supposed to happen on the 7th of October 2013.

MRI machine require helium. Photo by Jan Ainali.

MRI machines even require helium. Phillips MRI courtesy of Jan Ainali.

Helium Catastrophe?

The situation, however, had changed dramatically since 1996, and these days helium is essential in many sectors. A lot of medical equipment, MRI and lasers for instance, require helium to keep parts of them at a very low temperature; helium is also used for electronic fabrication and aeronautics applications.

Many research laboratories of universities all over the world rely on helium to operate some of their instruments.

The shutdown of the Federal Helium Reserve, and the consequent substantial reduction in helium supply, would badly affect all these activities. Moreover, such reduction would cause an increase in the helium price, which would put even more strain on all these industries.

Last-Minute Solution

Luckily, in the end the catastrophe was avoided, as a last minute solution was found. The US government approved a bill on the 2nd of October 2013, the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013, which avoided the shutdown of the Federal Helium Reserve.

According to the law, BLM will have to auction the remaining 300 million m3 of helium from 2015 onwards; the auction should continue until two thirds of this quantity will be sold. The remaining helium will be used for federal purposes.

New Projects

All helium users, from scientists to birthday partiers, hope that 2014 will be a better year for helium supplies, and there are already some encouraging signs.

Some good news came from Qatar, where RasGas opened a new plant which can produce about 60 million m3 of helium per year. With this plant, Qatar becomes the second largest helium world producer, after the US. In this new plant, helium is separated from natural gas and then sold to intermediate distributing companies, such as Air Liquid, Linde and Iwatani.

At the same time, Air Products and Chemicals is developing plans for a new plant in Colorado, which should become active from the beginning of next year (2015). Helium is present in a natural carbon dioxide reserve; the new plant will separate the helium from the other gas.

Better Future for Helium and Science

Despite these new projects, it is still not clear what the future holds for helium users. According to many predictions, it is likely that there will be periodic helium shortages and that the prices will still be quite high for the whole 2014 year.

It is therefore important to try to recover and reuse helium and, when possible, to find alternative solutions.

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