Cheap Helium Era Ends, Causes Issues

Subtle Equilibrium

The helium we use today has a long history. It was formed millions of years ago by the degradation of radioactive materials and has since been confined in Earth’s rocky substrata. It is typically obtained during the extraction of natural gas from subterranean sources.

The separation of helium from the natural gas prior to burning is a common process. However, the lower the concentration of helium in the gas, the more expensive the procedure becomes. In general, for gas companies to consider extracting helium, the concentration needs to be at least 0.3%. Such concentrations are confined to a select group of countries, including the US, Qatar, Algeria, Canada, and South Africa.

Therefore, scarcity of helium does not stem from an inherent shortage of helium per se, but rather from the difficulty in transportation from producing countries to worldwide customers in a time-efficient manner. This could be a result of numerous factors.

Helium supply is a worldwide business, and global events can significantly impact its production and supply. Another hurdle is that helium atoms being extremely light are not firmly held by Earth’s gravity, hence, they tend to escape, including from specially designed storage tanks. New research presented by Siddhantakar at the International Round Table on Materials Criticality last week suggests that approximately 50% of the helium extracted is lost before it can be utilized.

Consequently, countries that require a significant amount of helium – such as Canada, China, Brazil, Germany, France, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, and the UK, which are among the major importers – continually strive to ensure a consistently reliable supply. The US is not only one of the premier consumers but a leading producer of helium.

Historically, the international helium market has been tightly linked to the US government, which began hoarding helium in Texas in 1961 for military reasons. As highlighted in a 1975 report, the rationale behind the federal helium conservation programme was initially to stockpile helium, projecting that its importance would grow and availability would decline in the future.