Chemistry professor discusses helium shortage

Published: May 17, 2019
Updated: May 21, 2019
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Eduardus Duin, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry in Auburn’s College of Sciences and Mathematics, commented on the news of a helium shortage, including where helium is found, how long helium has been in shortage, its primary uses and what scientists will do moving forward.

Where do we get helium?

Most helium is found in locations where natural gas and oil is present. Some natural gas fields have enough helium mixed with the gas (up to 7 percent) that it can be extracted at an economical cost. Companies that drill for natural gas in these areas produce the natural gas, process it and remove the helium as a byproduct. The helium is produced in the earth’s crust as a result of radioactive decay of uranium and thorium. The helium would, in principle, escape into the atmosphere but will accumulate in the crust when there is an impermeable layer present above the layers where the helium is produced. Of course the same is true for natural gas.

The helium shortage has been going on for almost a decade.

How many helium sources exist?

There are only three main sources producing some 75 percent of the world's helium — sites in Qatar, Wyoming and Texas. In 2006-2007, several helium production plants were shut down for maintenance. This caused a huge increase in the helium price and for some reason some of the production plants stayed off line.

Is the current shortage due in part to the production plants staying off line?

The current squeeze is in part the effect of the decision of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to implement an embargo of Qatar which resulted in the temporary shutdown of Qatar’s helium production and caused a helium shortage that lasted into the fall of 2017. The US is slowly releasing some of its old strategical supply (stored in Texas) which helped to bridge this period but this supply is supposed to be completely sold in the next couple of years.

The current shortage is due to that fact that the need for helium is still increasing but new helium capturing facilities are too slow to come online and current facilities have to be shut down too often for maintenance.

There has been talk of the helium shortage impacting Party City and other places that supply balloons for parties, but what other industries could be impacted by this shortage?

Helium is a very important resource in industry, medicine and research. The more common application people should be familiar with is MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). The big magnets are cooled with liquid helium. There is currently no alternative to run MRI machines. Therefore the frivolous use of helium in balloons is going to be the first victim of the current helium shortage. We cannot afford to have the helium wasted in such a way.

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