Helium Shortage: Update After One Year

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Helium is a very light element. Image by Magirly.

Helium is a very light element. Image by Cepheus.

The Helium Stewardship Act has improved helium supplies, as a result, 2014 was a better year for the gas. Developments include Qatar’s increased helium production, and the launching of a Liquid Helium Purchasing Program.

Helium Situation in 2014

Compared to the previous year, 2014 was an easier year for helium. In fact, as we reported a year ago, in 2013, helium production was seriously in danger, due to the threatened closure of the Federal Helium Reserve (United States), one of the major global helium producers. Luckily, the Helium Stewardship Act (HSA), approved by the US Congress in October 2013, avoids this.

In 2014 there was not such danger; indeed, recent data estimate that there was an increase in world production, which for refined helium grew from 231 million liters (2013) to about 286 million liters (2014).

Helium Production: Qatar’s Role

One of the reasons for this increase is the higher helium production of Qatar.

In the Middle Eastern country, the company RasGas inaugurated a second helium production plant – Helium 2 – in December 2013. This led to an increase in Qatar’s production from about 26.5 million liters (2013) to about 75.2 million liters (2014). These data made Qatar the second largest helium producer in the world, with 14 % of global production; the largest helium producer is still the US.

The RasGas plant, consisting of Helium 2 (just recently opened) and Helium 1 (already operational), is now the world’s largest helium production plant.

Helium Situation Still Critical

Despite the greater production, however, the situation regarding helium availability is still critical. The high demand, combined with shortages, inevitably led to higher prices. Further to that, however, one of the main problems is that there are periods of shortage, during which the suppliers cannot guarantee helium delivery.

This can cause problems, as the activities which rely on helium (not just kids’ birthday parties) are necessarily  suspended/postponed. Some medical equipment, such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), for instance, cannot be used without helium.

Considering the long-term situation, one cause of concern is that, according to the HSA mentioned above, the Helium Federal Reserve will operate only until the 30th of September 2021, and faces dismantling after that. This may cause a progressive decrease in helium production in the coming years, putting further strain on a market that is already at its limit.

The Liquid Helium Purchase Program

To try to address, and partially reduce, the problems associated with the helium shortage, the American Physical Society (APS), together with the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) and the American Chemical Society (ACS), started a pilot program called the Liquid Helium Purchasing Program.

Decoded Science spoke to Dr. Mark Elsesser, from APS, who is responsible for the program.

Dr. Elsesser noted that, “In the US there are many research groups at universities and research institutions that require helium to develop their research and maintain their equipment; very often they need relatively small amounts of helium, so they do not have a lot of negotiating power with the suppliers.

“The idea is to have several research groups join together and have DLA negotiate and purchase liquid helium on their behalf. When the groups want to purchase liquid helium, instead of contacting the suppliers directly, they contact DLA.

Developing the Program

The pilot program started in June 2014; at present, 7 participants are part of it. These include small research groups, for instance individual researchers from Memphis and New Hampshire Universities, and larger institutions, such as Stanford University.

As Dr. Elsesser said:

“For us it is important to have participants from all over the country but also with different helium needs; in this way, we can have an idea of what problems US academics may face for helium supply, according to both their geographical location and volume of helium required. In the case of individual research groups, they may need only 1,000 liters of helium per year; an institution such Stanford, on the other hand, can buy up to 100,000 liters per year.

Helium plant.

Helium production increased in 2014. Image by Juanarreo.

Helium Delivery

Experts expect the first helium deliveries within the Liquid Helium Purchasing Program to take place in April/May 2015; after that, more will follow, depending on the users’ needs.

According to Dr. Elsesser, this will allow them to have feedback on the pilot program.

“Depending on what we see, and what the feedback is, we will think about next steps, how to improve the program, how to include more research groups, etc.” Dr. Elsesser says.

“At present in the US there is a big variation in helium price from area to area; I have heard of some people paying 8 $/liter and others paying as much as 25 $/liter. This is on the mainland – if we go to Hawaii, the prices are even higher. We hope that with our program some of the groups can manage to have a better price. However, the reliability of the supply is something considered even more important than the cost. We really hope we can improve this.

Outlook for the Future

According to Dr. Elsesser:

“Helium availability is one of the big problems our members will have to face in coming years. In the upcoming months, APS will study the situation in detail, and prepare a report. We want to have a clear and exact idea of the situation; in this way we may think about realistic solutions. These will include the recycling of helium, but also looking at possible alternatives, such as the use of different equipment for low temperature physics experiments.

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