How is Helium Shortage Impacting Industries?

Helium, a non-renewable element found deep within the Earth’s crust is currently in short supply. Decreased supply from major producers, including Russia which has curtailed its production since the war in Ukraine is believed to be the key reason for the sudden helium crisis. In January 2022, the Russian plant producing a large amount of helium, operating under Gazprom, Russia’s largest company, was hit by an explosion, causing it to shut down for indefinite period. The global helium market is expected to reach around USD20 billion by 2026, owing to its increasing demand from various end-user industries. Besides, increasing number of research centres and strong focus on creating high-end products are pushing helium demand and supporting market expansion.

How is Helium Supply Crunch Impacting Industries?

Helium has a wide range of applications in computer discs, microscopes, car airbags, cell phones, computer, table chips, nuclear reactors, optical fibres, etc. Since helium is pivotal for most industries, its shortage and increasing demand could create a perfect storm in the global economy. The blockade of Qatar, the source of roughly one-fourth of world’s helium supply is also contributing to the skyrocketing prices of the rare commodity. In terms of global helium reserves, Qatar is tied with Iran and consists 17% of the world’s helium.

The supply chain disruptions exacerbated by the 2017 embargo on Qatar, one of the leading helium producers seriously affected the production of this rare element. Once the embargo came into effect, scientists stopped experiments and even closed their laboratories since the rare element is used to cool superconducting magnets in laboratories’ spectrometers.

However, labs only constitute for 6% of the helium market, as per the research conducted by the United States Geological Survey. Hospitals are the biggest consumers of helium, accounting for 32% of the global market share.

The rare element is crucial for successful operation of all MRIs, which require thousands of litres of liquid helium to keep their magnets cool for optimal functioning. Patients are at risk of foregoing MRI studies, essential to make diagnosis and guide treatment of serious illnesses due to the dwindling production of helium. In 2021, nearly 38 million MRI examinations were exhibited in the United States alone. The imaging modality provides the best contrast resolution, showing details in tissues in the body such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones, which can not be seen in other modalities such as X-rays or CT scan. Radiologists and physicians are concerned with the helium shortage as they would not be able to interpret diagnostic images or perform minimally invasive image-guided procedures, which could affect millions of patients.

The fear of helium drying up is looming over the entire tech sector. Without helium, Google cannot support 5.6 billion searches a day, Apple cannot produce millions of iPhones and Apple Watches, and Netflix cannot stream movies and shows. Due to its unique properties, helium plays a critical role in cooling the equipment needed to keep the internet running. As technology is playing bigger and more important role in our world, the demand for helium is sky-high when the supplies are lower than ever. Key players in the semiconductor industry are also feeling the impact of helium shortage. Since helium has high thermal conductivity and light molecular weight, it is used for miniscule etching of semiconductor chips.

The party balloon industry account for 10% or more of the total helium use. The rare element is also used in weather balloons that are released twice a day, every day from 900 locations worldwide. The data collected from these balloons help to determine the atmospheric features so meteorologists can predict weather in coming days. The US National Weather Service had to cut back on weather balloon launches amidst the helium shortage.

The Earth has a finite supply of helium. Helium can be captured both at natural gas deposits, and at processing plants where the gas is transformed into liquid for shipment. Volatility in the helium is encouraging helium suppliers to find less efficient substitutes. An enormous new facility based in Russia was expected to supply 1/3rd of the global helium, but then the war happened. Now four of five US helium suppliers are rationing the element, prioritizing the healthcare industry, and reducing allotments to less essential end-users. However, the helium costs have been rising significantly and without an end in sight, the future of MRI remains uncertain.

How can Helium Shortage be Averted?

Decline in the US production of helium and cutting back of helium from Qatar amidst the increasing demand from electronic manufacturers in Asia has prompted interest in helium production in other countries. Saskatchewan, a province based in Canada has the unique ability to be able to support helium production as a standalone sector due to the geology, which supports the drilling of dedicated helium wells. As per the US Geological Survey, Canada has helium resources of roughly 70 billion cubic feet, the fifth largest in the world. In April 2021, Saskatchewan became home to the largest helium purification facility in Canada. The Canadian government is expected to enable the production of the world’s helium by 2030, which would generate more than USD500 million worth of exports for the country.

Alternate carrier gases like hydrogen or nitrogen can be implemented in laboratories facing liquid helium crisis for NMR instruments. Scientists have discovered new methods for GC separation and detection utilizing hydrogen that can enhance the performance. Besides, hydrogen generators can be used to mitigate safety risks such as a fire or explosion hazard. While the costs of hydrogen generators might be an extra expense for the lab, the rising costs of helium cylinders and their scarcity would not hinder lab operations.

Nitrogen is another alternative to helium, which can provide the best possible separation efficiency at lowest velocity. The fact that nitrogen is present in abundance in the atmosphere and easily produced makes it a viable option for labs around the world facing helium supply crunch.

Is Helium Recycling a Viable Solution?

Some industry and scientific communities are considering the recycling of helium amidst the crunch. Liquid helium can be prevented from unnecessarily evaporating into thin air and getting forever lost into the atmosphere. Capturing this vented gas, up to 95% of it can be reliquefied, stored, and used, which can save a large chunk of running expenses in many labs. Research facilities with recycling facilities prevent a lot of helium to go to waste and are much better placed than non-recycling colleagues to see through the storm.

Helium is merely an impurity in natural gases. Gazprom, the largest publicly listed natural gas company in the world is expected to produce around 60 million cubic meters of helium by 2025. Supplying large quantities of helium into the market can prevent further supply shortage. However, if severe sanctions are put on helium for an extended period, its unavailability would hugely impact the global market.