Helium supply: scarcity prompts the search for alternatives

Helium is a finite resource and, along with fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum and natural gas, reserves of this noble gas are noticeably dwindling.

Stephen Harrison
Linde AG

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Article Summary

Some experts believe it is quite possible that more than half of the world’s helium supply has already been depleted. This poses a challenge to the new century’s leading scientific minds — could helium be replaced in the myriad applications that presently rely on it, and if so, with which gases?

Worldwide demand for helium has been steadily increasing to meet the requirements of both conventional applications and the latest new-frontier uses. Helium is used in gaseous form in welding and cutting, fibre optics, electronics, in aerospace applications, in leak-testing, deep-sea diving, growing crystals to make silicon wafers, as well as inflation of balloons. Additionally, it is employed in liquid form for cooling superconductive magnets used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners for medical diagnostics and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) laboratory instrumentation. Helium is also commonly used with a wide range of analytical instruments as a carrier gas or in calibration gas mixtures.

In terms of usage worldwide, the greatest demand for helium comes from the USA (36%), while Asia (28%) and Europe (22%) are the second and third largest markets, respectively. Twenty percent of global demand alone comes from the manufacture and operation of MRI scanners, which use liquid helium to cool the superconducting magnets that generate high resolution images of the human body. Rising demand for MRI, along with growth in the electronics, semiconductor, liquid crystal display and fibre optic industries is fuelling increased requirement for the gas in China, India, Korea, Taiwan and in the Middle East.

Carlos Nulman, Head of Global Helium Business at Linde says: “Today, the entire industrial gases industry is facing one of the most prolonged shortages in the history of global helium supply. This is a temporary situation, and with significant efforts being made to secure additional helium sources, one that will improve in the medium term. Nevertheless issues around helium scarcity and temporary supply disruptions will continue into the future and unfortunately are a natural consequence of the fragile supply chain characteristic to the helium industry.”

The cards nature has dealt us are now on the table and we can clearly see what is unfolding. The scientific world needs to navigate a safe transition from helium, and indeed other scarce gases we have traditionally used for their convenience, to other suitable and sustainable alternatives, wherever possible.

Dan Baciu, Head of Global Helium Business Development at Linde says: “The extended helium shortage is being caused by the imbalance between supply and demand. In 2009 the global economic crisis caused a downturn in the need for helium from a number of sectors, and gas suppliers expected a slow recovery from this downturn. Instead, these sectors made a strong recovery, including sectors that had suffered the most, coming back with a vengeance. On the back of this, we saw the rapid emergence of a number of processes that did not previously require helium, adding to the demand.”

Nulman adds, “While demand has increased, supply, which is largely governed by sources linked to fossil fuel reserves, has not kept pace. Some existing sources have experienced disruptions and have performed below expectations. Furthermore, a number of sources that were planned to come on stream a couple of years ago, have not yet done so. We anticipate these to become operational in the near term and provide some relief to the industry.”  

Supply sources
The largest helium source that industrial gas suppliers take advantage of is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) complex in the United States that provides about 50% of worldwide demand. The system has physical constraints, however, that force the BLM to allocate the amount of crude available to refiners thus affecting the entire supply chain. Reductions in volume – impacting the whole industry – have been in place for a year.

In addition to the BLM, Linde also sources a significant portion of its helium from a number of other sources to ensure diversity and stability of supply. One such example is Qatar in the Middle East via the Qatar 1 Helium Project. Linde also operates the first helium liquefaction plant in the southern hemisphere in Darwin, Australia.

Nulman expects a respite in 2013, as a result of several new sources coming on stream, including the Qatar 2 helium project, expected to be the world’s largest.. Linde has secured access to a high proportion of its output. Once these new sources are operational, there will be sufficient helium to satisfy existing demand and also to support Linde’s customers’ growth aspirations.

“This will, however, only be a temporary respite,” he cautions. “Supply from the BLM system is depleting and will be winding down over the next 4-7 years. Replacing this supply will take time and potentially multiple helium sources need to be identified and developed in the medium term. Furthermore, many of these new sources will be located in some challenging geographies like Siberia and North Africa, and on the back of very large and complex projects such as LNG trains and intercontinental pipelines. So, the complexity, cost and risk of helium extraction will increase significantly over time.”

Another challenge to industrial gas companies, who are distributing helium to end user markets, is the lack of full visibility of all the new processes using helium. An example of this is in the electronics industry, where demand growth has been significant — almost exponential — and somewhat unexpected. Although this industry is typically guarded about exactly how the helium is being used, one process that is well known is the advent of the larger diameter silicon wafer. About six years ago, these wafers were being produced with a 150 mm diameter and the amount of helium required to cool down a wafer of this diameter was not significant. When the design progressed to a 300 mm diameter, it resulted in a doubling of the wafer rod surface area coupled with a quadrupling the wafer rod volume, thereby placing higher demands on the heat extraction capacity of the cooling gases surrounding the wafer rod. This caused a substantial increase in helium demand.

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