Issues Magazine

Helium: Is the Party Really Over?



By Colin A. Scholes

A shortage of helium will be faced in the near future as the nearly completed sell-off of the US strategic reserves suppresses the world’s ability to extract helium from natural gas reservoirs.

Outside of Dexter, Missouri, USA, in 1905 a drilling company struck a gas geyser. To celebrate the company’s good fortunes, it was decided to ignite a side stream of the gas. Taking a burning bale of hay to the escaping gas, the assembled crowd was shocked as time after time the escaping gas extinguished the burning bale.

Amazingly, the drilling company had found not a reservoir of methane but a reservoir of gas made up of 12% helium. This was a major discovery as helium had only been isolated in the laboratory eight years previously, and was thought to be extremely rare. Far from being rare, it was soon discovered to exist in vast quantities in the gas fields beneath the Great Plains of the USA and, incredibly, to this day those gas fields remain the world’s largest and most pure source of helium.

Helium is most readily identified with party balloons and the high-pitched voice it produces upon inhaling. This lighter-than-air property makes it vital for weather balloons and airships or blimps. Its chemical inertness lends the gas to many applications, such as electronic, microchip, LCDs and fibre optic production, where it ensures a clean, non-reactive environment. On a larger scale, helium is used in welding and to replace oxygen in the packaging of some foods. It is also used as a heat transfer agent, for pressurising and purging vessels and tanks, for example in rocket technology, and in scuba equipment, where it is a major component of hydreliox.

The most important application for helium is in cryogenics, since no other substance is able to cool to temperatures as low as –269°C. This is vital for medical MRI scanners, which require supercooled magnets, as well as for scientific instruments, such as NMR spectrometers and infrared scanners.

In 2007, 28% of helium produced was used for cryogenic purposes, mostly for medical MRIs, with only 3% used for scientific purposes. Another 27% was used for pressurising and purging vessels, such as rockets and tanks, with a further 20% used in welding (United States Geological Survey, 2009 Minerals Yearbook). The biggest consumer of helium is NASA, using annually almost 75 million cubic feet, followed by the USA Department of Defense, which uses a significant quantity to cool liquid hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel. All of this helium is eventually released into the atmosphere, where, being so light, it escapes and enters space.

The importance of helium led the US government to set up the National Helium Reserve outside Armarillo, Texas, in 1925 to protect the vast resources in the Great Plains, based around the Cliffside Fields gas field, for the purpose of military blimps and commercial airships, of vital interest at the time. With the start of the space race in the 1950s, the National Helium Reserve was expanded because of its critical role in rocket technology.

Fifty years later, with the Cold War over and almost a billion cubic feet of helium stored, the US government began to sell off its helium reserves and leave the market to private enterprise, with the plan to empty the reserve by 2015. This has led to concern that the world is running out of helium, and that we are squandering a valuable resource on party balloons.

However, significant helium reserves remain in the ground. The US Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries 2003 reports that the USA alone has 25% of the world’s known helium reserves (8900 billion cubic feet) and produces about 77% of the world’s needs as well as being its single largest consumer. Helium is also recovered in significant quantities elsewhere – Algeria (3000 billion cubic feet in reserves), Russia (6700 billion cubic feet in reserves) and Poland (280 billion cubic feet in reserves) producing helium mainly for the European market and Qatar producing for the Asian market. Australia produces around 150 million standard cubic feet (mmscf)/year. Its facility in Darwin, which opened in 2009, supplies the domestic and Asian market, and with Australia’s large natural gas reserves it is estimated that another 150 mmscf/year can be produced in the near future.

The problem is that the US government’s decision to sell off its helium reserves has meant that global production is not keeping pace with global demand, as this is currently met by tapping the accumulated helium recovered and stored over the past five decades. This has kept the price of helium artificially low, evident by the average increase in price from the National Helium Reserve of 3.8% per annum, with the price in 2011 of around US$75/Mcf, while the other major helium producers, such as BOC Gases, Air Products and Praxair, have average increases of 10–12% per annum to offset increases in production and distribution costs, with the world’s helium market growing at around 5% per year.

In 2015, when the US strategy reserves are completely sold, there is expected to be a dramatic loss of short-term supply, as those plants currently in operation will be unable to meet demand, and the current low price is hampering the building of new production plants. However, the looming shortfall is being noticed, with investments being made to build eight new helium plants globally, projected to start up between 2011 and 2015. These plants are in the US, Algeria (providing an additional 550 mmscf/year), China, India, Indonesia, Qatar (providing an additional 550 mmscf/year) and Russia (providing an additional 200 mmscf/year) (‘The Helium Market’, CryoGas International, October 2006).

However, these plants will take a number of years to provide the quantity of helium currently been drawn from the strategic reserve and there is doubt whether their size can meet expected increase in demand over the coming decade. Therefore, considerable supply shortages are expected for a number of years while additional helium production plants are constructed. This will affect the operating costs of MRIs and other vital equipment. It is expected that significant advancements in recycling will arise from the helium price increase, such as closed loops on cooling circuits of MRIs.

While the world is not about to run out of everyday helium, the focus should be on helium-3, which is an isotope of helium containing only one neutron compared to the two neutrons of helium-4 recovered from natural gas reservoirs. It is mainly produced as a result of radioactive decay of tritium, a side product of nuclear weapons production. Since the end of the Cold War, helium-3 production has all but ceased. Although helium-3 and -4 are interchangeable in almost every application, only helium-3 is used in radiation monitors and nuclear fusion research. Helium-3 is a vital component of neutron detectors, demand for which has increased markedly with heightened concern about terrorism and national security.

The lack of helium-3 is also a significant limitation to research on nuclear fusion, which holds the promise of a clean energy source of the future. Some futurists have suggested that a lack of helium-3 will drive humanity to the stars once we have mined the closest major reservoirs on the Moon’s surface and the skies of the gas giants Uranus and Neptune for our energy needs. Until then, we will have to look forward to expensive party balloons.

Reproduced from Chemistry in Australia (