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Helium rationing, a looming crisis – and a sinking feeling

The gas we’ve taken for granted is in increasingly limited supply. 【Kelly D Photography】

Helium rationing, a looming crisis – and a sinking feeling

The gas we’ve taken for granted is in increasingly limited supply. 【Kelly D Photography】

Helium demand is rapidly outpacing supply, cheap helium is gone forever and rationing is inevitable.

More disturbingly is that a global helium supply crisis is looming this year. The fact is that the US Senate has until October 1 2013 to pass a bill overturning a current law that stipulates that on that date the US Federal Helium Reserve (35% of current global supply) will be closed to non-government users.

It is into this context that Macquarie University launches its new state-of-the-art liquid helium recovery system today, in partnership with CSIRO, the goal being to safeguard Australian research against the looming helium shortages.

It’s a tough time for a gas we have come to take for granted, with a long and influential history.

High tensions

The Cold War, as we know, saw two ideologically opposed nations locked into a technology race to build ever larger rockets capable of delivering nuclear warheads onto the cities of their enemies tens of thousands of kilometres away.

The 1960s Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile used helium to pressurise its fuel tanks. Wikimedia Commons

Long-range rockets require enormous propulsive thrust that could only be provided by the burning of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen together in a rocket engine.

Rocket scientists devised a way to use helium, a rare inert gas, to pressurise the liquid fuel and deliver it to the rockets combustion chamber.

As the arms race morphed into the space race, larger rockets such as Saturn V, which powered astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s, needed lots of helium.

Luckily, the United States military had been squirrelling away helium in a Federal Reserve since the 1920s in case lighter-than-air blimps proved useful in aerial bombardment.

That role was eventually filled by faster and more nimble multi-engine fixed wing planes, so the helium remained untouched.

Federal Helium Reserve

The Federal Helium Reserve is actually a porous rock formation underlying Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma containing natural gas with unusually high helium content.

That helium accumulated over geological time as a by-product of the natural radioactive decay of uranium- and thorium-rich sands present in the reservoir.

Concerned there was not enough natural helium in the reservoir to meet the demands of the space race, the US government paid natural gas producers to extract the helium in their gas fields for re-injection into the Federal Reserve.

The US$1.4 billion cost of the helium top-up of the reservoir seemed justifiable during the Cold War, but with détente came fiscal responsibility, and in 1996 a US law was passed authorising the drawdown and fixed-price sale of the helium back to the private sector until the debt was paid down.

Eric B.

The law stated that, upon settlement of the debt, helium sales to the private sector must stop, thereby reserving the remaining helium for government needs.

This new flow of cheap helium onto the market coincided with the rapid expansion of the semiconductor industry that used the inert gas to produce contaminant-free microchips and optical fibres.

Similarly, new medical technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) devices use liquid helium to induce superconductivity in magnets, revolutionising soft tissue imaging and medical diagnoses.

The demand for these technologies and the helium that enabled them to function soared and the Helium Reserve was siphoned off at the maximum rate. It now supplies 40% of US domestic and 30% of global demand.

Helium drought

Cheap helium from the reserve effectively stifled exploration for alternative helium sources and investment into new production plants and recycling technologies. But with supply constrained and global demand increasing at 3% per year, the market price has quadrupled over the past decade.

By around 2006 demand outstripped supply, and the market paradigm shifted dramatically from high-priced helium to no helium at any price, and heavy helium users such as US national labs were forced to curtail non-essential experimental activities.

Rationing to the private sector affected the party balloon industry first, and at this stage the general public became aware of the issue that research scientists and managers had been fretting over for the past decade.

All bets are off

The next rationing decisions will be much harder to make and will pit medical diagnostic services against defence applications against experimental science and much, much more.

Mista Sparkle

More disturbing however is the fact the Federal Helium Reserve debt will be paid off as early as September 2013, an event that will by law cut helium supply to the private sector. This man-made helium drought will force closures of research facilities and high-tech factories, with those located outside the US most vulnerable.

Recognising that a looming supply crisis was about to play out, the US House of Representatives introduced Bill HR527 (the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act) that would allow the continued sale of helium to the private sector from October 1 2013 until the Reserve is emptied of helium.

The law creates auction-based price reforms that would maximise government revenue and stimulate the market to invest in new helium supply and recycling technologies.

Renée MBM

Support for Bill HR527 was unanimous in the House, and a Senate committee has recently tacked on amendments to the bill before being put to a Senate vote.

Under normal conditions it would be a no-brainer to pass HR527 because the economic and societal implications of not doing so are very grave indeed and would serve no political purpose.

But all bets are off on this one because the US Congress is approaching dysfunction, where partisan politics has deadlocked even the passing of the 2013 US federal budget which would impose a complete government shutdown come October 1.

This confluence of events embroiling the global helium supply has scientists, technologists and engineers worried – and everyone else should be too.