The global helium shortage and why it’s so important for your industry

Apr 30 2014 Read 3916 Times

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The world is facing a critical helium shortage and it’s not one with a known solution. Despite being the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium is difficult to find or store in practical quantities. Most supplies are extracted from underground gas reserves, and most stocks are held in one area of the USA. Factors for the shortage include the declining natural resources of helium, the planned and unplanned closures of helium refineries in the U.S.A and Algeria, new helium using applications, and increasing global demand from countries such as China. In addition to this, the U.S.A is to sell off its helium reserves to private refiners by 2015, as part of the 1996 Helium Privatisation Act.

What effect is this having on your industry?

First and foremost, as the supplies of helium reduce, the cost of helium is steadily and irreversibly rising. Supplies are also being disrupted by rationing. For example, the availability for minor applications such as gas chromatography is being rationed as priority is given to other sectors such as healthcare.
Helium has the lowest boiling and melting points of all the chemical elements and liquid helium is the only liquid that cannot be solidified by the lowering of its temperature. It’s these properties that make helium so irreplaceable in cryogenics and many industries. Thinking beyond party balloons, helium is essential for air-to-air missile guidance, computer chips, optical fibre and medical lasers, rocket-engine testing, arc welding, and numerous other civilian and military uses. It goes to show how big the demand is for this finite resource. Unfortunately, chromatography is way down the priority list as critical applications such as hospital MRI scanners will remain at the top.

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