Helium Shortage: Situation Update One Year Later

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.

© Copyright 2014 Clara Piccirillo, PhD, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science

Resources for this article

Bomgardner , Melody. Air Products Plans U.S. Helium Project. (2013).  Chemical and Engineering News. Accessed on January 30, 2014

Reisch, M. . Helium Supply Gets A Lift. (2013). Chemical and Engineering News. Accessed on January 30, 2014

Widener , Andrea. Helium Headache. (2013). Chemical and Engineering News. Accessed on January 30, 2014

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    • says

      Because there is still buyers here. As prices raise, less partiers will buy and the market will work itself out with supply and demand. Notice that balloons are a rare sight now.

  1. Brad Lawrence says

    Hi Just came across this article.
    In Gladstone Queensland Australia there is a chemical plant that
    produces various gases and nitroprill and Chlorine .
    one of the by products I believe is Helium That is burnt in the atmosphere.
    When you drive past at night there is a white flame coming out of a stack
    that cannot be seen in daylight .If this gas is so important why is it being burnt.

    • Clara Piccirillo, PhDClara Piccirillo, PhD says

      I do not know if the gas you see is helium or not. In any case, one of the problems of helium is that it is very light, hence it tends to “escape” very easily.
      This is true for the plants which produce other gases but also for the equipments running with helium. It is difficult and expensive to recover/trap it.
      Considering the current shortage situation I think it is essential to improve the recovery technologies and make the most of the helium we have.

  2. Tom says

    I’m curious as to how helium gas was created in the first place, geologically speaking, and what if any alternative “”engineered gas” alternative could be used in its place in the future?

    The Germans engineered synthetic fuel in World War Ii when their regular petroleum fuel sources were no longer accessable in the last years of the war, would a synthetic helium be possible as well as cost-effective?

    • Chris says

      Helium is an element formed from the stars. It is also produced from radioactive decay, and there are some huge underground reserves, like the one in Texas. There is no way to produce it like a synfuel.
      It can be separated from gas mixtures, and purified, but absent a nuclear reaction, it can’t be created.
      Since it is so light, it rises into the upper atmosphere and some escapes into space. Many MRI’s and NMR’s etc, use helium recovery systems to capture liquid helium as it boils off.

  3. Mari says

    Is there a follow-up for this year? I’d be very curious about what the price did last year, as well as what the actual output of the new plants has been. Do I need to keep giving all balloon-buyers the evil eye?

  4. Lethe says

    I do realize this is a serious subject, but I just can’t help it. I read it aloud in my head in a helium-infused voice, and now there’s Morgan Freeman….

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