China opens first large-scale helium plant as it tries to reduce reliance on US imports

China is a step closer to reducing its dependency on the imported helium it uses to make hi-tech products, according to scientists working at a new facility in the northwest of the country.

They say they are extracting helium from the waste product of natural gas at the plant, and it could be the key to mass production in China.

Helium is a noble gas, meaning it is stable and unlikely to react with other elements, even in an extreme environment. It is lightweight, colourless, and a rare resource.

Nearly all helium used in China ” whether to pump fuel for its huge Long March-5 rocket, to protect metal during welding, to produce laser light, or to create the super-clean environment needed to make computer chips ” comes from elsewhere, mostly the United States or US-owned facilities in other countries.

The new factory, which started operating on Tuesday last week, could be about to change that.

Located inside a natural gas processing plant in Yanchi county, Ningxia, it is the first facility in China that can produce helium at a commercial scale, according to a statement from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which designed and built it.

Scientists working on the project expect the annual output to reach 20 tonnes, in the form of liquid helium. That is not much compared to the massive amount China uses every year ” more than 4,300 tonnes ” but the cost of the plant was low, at 30 million to 50 million yuan (US$4.3 million to US$7.1 million). It means hundreds of similar facilities could potentially be built in China, putting self-reliance in reach.

But to do that, the project will need official backing.

“The investment is not the problem ” the problem is whether the government wants to do it,” said a project scientist, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

The US has more than a third of the world’s helium reserves, and has been the biggest producer of the gas since 1925. Most helium is extracted as a by-product in natural gas production, and the US has some of the world’s largest helium-rich natural gas fields. China also has natural gas, but it only contains trace amounts of helium, meaning direct extraction is too expensive for mass production.

However, a research team with the academy’s Technical Institute of Physics and Chemistry in Beijing found there was a considerable amount of helium in the waste product of Chinese natural gas plants. When methane becomes a liquid at low temperature, the helium stays in the air and becomes concentrated, forming a waste substance known as boil-off gas. While helium makes up only about 1 per cent of that boil-off gas, it is enough to extract at a relatively low cost.

Another scientist involved in the project would not disclose the production cost, but said it was “competitive” compared to the cost of importing it.

Separating the helium from the boil-off gas required an extremely low temperature, and the cooling pump needed was only made in a few countries, the scientists said. But after years of research and development, China can now make “every component at home”, according to the academy’s statement.

The price of helium more than doubled last year, according to industry data. The global helium market is influenced by many factors, but the protracted trade war between the US and China has brought new concerns. For example, a possible scenario where Beijing cuts off the supply of rare earths to the US, which it depends on for hi-tech products, and America retaliates by blocking China’s helium supply.

But the researchers believed China would still depend on the US for helium in the years to come. While Qatar and Australia have ramped up production in recent years, their facilities are mostly owned or controlled by US interests. Russia also produces helium, but its supply cannot meet China’s increasing demand.

Building more facilities in China will take time.

“I think we’ll need at least 10 years to reach self-reliance,” one of the scientists said.

Several more facilities were being built or at the planning stage, but they were mainly to be used as a backup supply for the defence industry, the researchers said.

However, some experts say that instead of aiming to produce enough helium to meet its needs, China should increase imports while the resource is still available on the international market, and build up a large strategic stockpile.

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