About one-fifth of the world's helium supply is used in MRI machines, and world demand for helium, driven by increased use of MRI and diagnostic imaging, has grown by 25% since 2003. Other industries that rely on the gas and are vying for their fair share include laser welding, microchip production, particle accelerators, and party-supply stores (for helium balloons).
Russia, Algeria and Qatar have all recently built processing facilities for helium. Canada, China and Poland are also thought to have potential reserves, according to the U.S. Geological Survey...
A severe helium shortage, experts say, would cause problems for large swaths of the economy, from medical scanners to welding to the manufacturing of optical fibers and LCD screens.
Congress is slowly grasping the extent of the problem. At a sleepy Senate hearing Thursday morning, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee listened to an array of experts chat about helium. The hearing was tied to a bill, sponsored by Sens...
In 1996, Congress moved to privatize the federal helium program, requiring that all the government’s helium supplies be sold off by 2015, according to a June report in Popular Mechanics magazine.
Though new private helium production plants are expected to start up in the coming years – a plant is projected to open this fall in Wyoming – private industry hasn’t jumped as quickly to produce helium as Congress hoped.
Because of that, consumers face spiking prices and tightening supplies.
Natural helium is plentiful. But the gas used for industrial and commercial purposes is a byproduct of natural gas production. Once heavily regulated by the federal government, helium production has been increasingly privatized in recent years. That has made it almost as complicated as the gasoline industry.
There are no reports that the helium shortage has caused any huge crises. Hospitals, which use liquid helium to freeze the magnets in MRI scanners, are still getting supplies. So are arc welders and particle physicists.
The US holds an even more dominant role in helium than Saudi Arabia does in oil because natural gas fields in Texas and Kansas have an unusually high concentration of helium. Natural gas production is currently the only way to profitably extract the lighter-than-air gas. Canada, Russia, Qatar, and Algeria are among the only other helium producers in the world.
While it’s not used in major quantities, helium is important for cutting-edge physics research. Particle accelerators like the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermilab facility near Chicago and CERN’s Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva, Switzerland, accelerate particles to nearly the speed of light and smash them into each other. When they collide, they break into smaller fragments, releasing energy in the form of heat and radiation. Supercooled helium is used to keep the magnets which run these accelerators cool, and keep the heat the reactions produce under control.
“There is definitely a helium shortage. It’s been going on for probably 18 months and will probably continue for another six months,” said Joe Peterson, assistant field manager of helium resources for the Bureau of Land Management in Amarillo, Texas.
When the global economic downturn hit in 2008, production of natural gas, and therefore helium, slowed, creating a “supply-demand imbalance,” Peterson said. Global demand has also increased, further straining the supply.
"There is a current shortage," said Doug Thornton, chief executive of the British Compressed Gas Association - the body which represents commercial suppliers of helium and other gases.
"That has led to a two-year price-hike, although we expect that prices may drop again, as new reserves are found in places like Russia. But there aren't many alternatives in terms of supply."
The cause of the crisis is a knotty one. Almost all the world's supplies of helium come from a handful of industrial plants in the US which have been undergoing maintenance. Most of the natural resources are hard to get to, and demands from the science, medical and technology sectors mean the fate of the humble balloon is up in the air.
Balloon shops supplying children's parties and weddings in the UK complain of price rises of up to 20 per cent for helium, plus increases in additional surcharges, delivery costs and canister rental. Some have had to turn away customers, while others absorb the costs. Helium now makes up about 60 per cent of the cost of a party balloon.
One major supplier, Air Products, told customers last month that the industry is "dependent on a small number of sources worldwide which are operating at near capacity and therefore demand continues to outstrip supply capability". BOA, a rival supplier, warned: "The global helium supply position is still very challenging. The availability of balloon gas has remained low for some time."
The source for the real numbers is, for an element, always the US Geological Survey. Their helium note tells us that current global consumption is around 180 million cubic metres a year. There’s something like 50 billion cubic metres lying around out there. That’s a near 300 year supply at current usage rates.
Another way of putting this is that sure, party balloons are a bit more expensive right now but there’s no worry over whether our great great grandchildren will still be able to have them.
Liquid helium has an extremely low boiling point — minus 452.1 degrees Fahrenheit, close to absolute zero — which makes it a perfect substance for cooling the superconducting magnets found in MRI machines. Hospitals are generally the first in line for helium, so the shortage isn’t affecting them yet. But prices for hospital-grade helium may continue to go up, leading to higher health-care costs or, in the worst-case scenario, the need for a backup plan for cooling MRI machines.
Helium is usually generated as a byproduct of natural gas mining, the shortage could also be attributed in part to the recession which has slowed natural gas production.
The US provides 75 per cent of the six billion cubic feet of helium used worldwide every year.
Between 10 and 12 billion cubic feet of recoverable helium are expected to remain in the reservoir by the end of 2014, Walter Nelson, director of helium sourcing for Air Products and Chemicals, Inc., told the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in May. "At current production rates of about 2 billion cubic feet per year, the reservoir could continue to produce helium for five to six more years." But, he said, the computer modeling that predicts the amount of helium the reservoir will be able to produce, considering its complex geology, has determined that the reservoir production rates "will decline to approximately 1 billion cubic feet per year after 2014," he said. "As a result, the usable life of the reservoir will be extended to 2018 or perhaps even 2020."
Helium is one of the periodic table’s inert gases — it doesn’t interact in any meaningful way with other elements — and that stability makes it ideal for high-tech manufacturing, where it’s can create protective environment any time elements are combined to create products such as silicon wafers.
Although helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, most of it in the Earth’s atmosphere bleeds off into space. Helium used for industrial purposes is a byproduct of natural gas production, and the Texas Panhandle is the United States’ helium capital. In the natural gas fields near Amarillo, the U.S. government maintains the country’s largest helium storehouse. The government put it there back in 1925 because natural gas produced at the gas fields between Amarillo and Hugoton, Kan., has a very high helium concentration—up to 1.9 percent.