There Is A World-Wide Shortage Of Helium

The world risks running out of helium, which would have enormous impacts on medical imaging and scientific research.

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Go into your neighborhood party store for some helium filled balloons, and there’s a good chance they’ll be out of helium. That’s because currently, there is a world-wide helium shortage, and helium prices have jumped 135% in just a year. U.S. party supply store, Party City saw its share price shrink 30% in the last six months due to the short supply. This isn’t the first time there’s been a helium shortage, in 1958, the balloons used in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade were filled with air rather than helium due to a shortage. Besides making people sound like chipmunks when they inhale some of the gas, and its use in party balloons, helium is primarily used to cool the superconducting magnets within Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanners. It is also used to make silicon wafers, which are the precursor of integrated circuits, and it is used in photovoltaics, or solar cells.

MRI machine

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN uses 96 metric tons of liquid helium in its superconducting magnets.

What is Helium?

Helium is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic, inert, monatomic gas, and is the first of the noble gas group on the periodic table of the elements. After hydrogen, helium has the second lowest atomic number — 2, and it has the lowest boiling point of all elements. Helium is a non-renewable resource, which means that once earth’s helium is gone, it’s gone. Helium gas is less dense than air, so when it escapes its containment, it floats out into space. For a long time, the U.S. has been the world’s largest producer of helium, accounting for 40% of the world’s supply. Number two is Algeria, and number three is Qatar. Helium is recovered in very small quantities from natural gas production. Only .3% or more is considered necessary for commercial helium extraction. In the U.S., the fields with recoverable helium are all located within a fairly short distance of one another in the U.S.’s Southwest. Fields are located in the U.S. states of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.


U.S. helium mining locations

According to a recent article in the trade publication Gasworld, 75% of the world’s helium now comes from just three locations: Ras Laffan Industrial City in Qatar, ExxonMobil in Wyoming, and the U.S. National Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas.

Helium’s History

Helium was first mined in 1903 in Dexter, Kansas, when an oil drilling operation produced a gas geyser that wouldn’t burn. The Kansas state geologist took a sample to the University of Kansas, where it was identified as helium. During WWI, the U.S. Navy sponsored three helium plants, and used the gas in barrage balloons. These were large balloons with cables attached to their bottoms that could be flown above airfields to discourage enemy aircraft from flying over. After the war, the U.S. built its first rigid helium-filled airship, the USS Shenandoah in 1923.


USS Shenandoah

U.S. National Helium Reserve

In 1925, the U.S. congress passed the Helium Act of 1925 which had two purposes: it created a National Helium Reserve at Amarillo, Texas, and it banned the export of helium. Because of that ban, and the U.S.’s monopoly on helium production, airships, such as the Hindenburg, were forced to use hydrogen as their lifting gas. Because of hydrogen’s high flammability, this led to the Hindenburg Disaster on May 6, 1937. After the Helium Acts Amendments of 1960, the U.S. tasked five private plants with recovering helium from natural gas and storing it in the National Helium Reserve. There, the gas is compressed at the surface, and stored in a layer of dolomite rock more than 3,000 feet underground. A thick layer of salt keeps the gas in place. The dolomite rock is one of the only geological formations on earth that can hold large quantities of helium. The natural gas fields near the reserve are also particularly rich in helium. The government also built a 425-mile (684 km) pipeline between Bushton, Kansas and Amarillo, Texas, to move the gas. By 1995, there were a billion cubic meters of helium being stored in the National Helium Reserve, and the reserve was $1.4 billion in debt. This led the U.S. Congress to pass the Helium Privatization Act of 1996. The reserve was tasked with selling off its supplies, but instead of letting the market for helium set the price, the Helium Privitization Act specified a price that was about half the open market price. This undercut efforts to conserve existing supplies of the gas.

New Helium Discoveries

In the mid-1990s, a new helium plant in Arzew, Algeria produced 17 million cubic meters (600 million cubic feet) of helium, which is enough to satisfy all of Europe’s demand. Between 2004 and 2006, helium plants were built in Ras Laffam, Qatar and Skikda, Algeria. Recently, researchers from Durham and Oxford universities have found a new helium field in Tanzania’s Rift Valley in East Africa. Its size is estimated to be around 54 billion cubic feet, which would be enough to fill over 1.2 million MRI scanners, or a lot of party balloons.

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Wyoming Helium Production Helps Keep World Supply Afloat

Helium may be the second-lightest element, but it’s weighing heavily on a lot of minds these days as the world struggles with its third global shortage in just 14 years. It’s gotten bad enough that, when party supply superstore Party City announced earlier this month it plans to shutter 45 of its 870 stores in the U.S., many outlets pointed to helium as the culprit. Party City has since said the closures are unrelated to the helium shortage, but it has acknowledged that some stores have had trouble fulfilling balloon orders due to inconsistent helium supplies, and it hopes to have a new commercial supplier in place by the summer. It may not be the first thing that springs to mind when thinking of Wyoming, but the Cowboy State plays a key role in keeping the helium supply chain afloat, providing up to 30 percent of the world’s supply. While most people probably know helium best for its role in the party balloon business, or for the funny way it raises the pitch of your voice, it’s actually one of the most critically important elements on the planet. In fact, helium is one of 35 mineral materials considered essential to U.S. national economic and security interests, as recently defined by the Department of the Interior. That’s because, aside from making balloons and blimps float, helium has many important uses in the technology sector. With the lowest boiling point of any element at -452 degrees Fahrenheit, liquid helium is used as a coolant for magnets in MRI machines and for research operations like Europe’s Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator. Because it’s light and nonreactive, it’s also used as a shielding gas in arc welding, and it’s added to air tanks to make it easier for lungs to take in oxygen during deep ocean dives. “It’s almost too valuable to fill party balloons with,” said Scott Quillinan, the director of research at UW’s School of Energy Resources. But while it makes up about a quarter of all the matter in the universe, helium is surprisingly hard to come by on Earth. The name is a bit of a giveaway – helium was named for the Greek sun god Helios, since it was first detected not on Earth, but as part of the sun’s spectral light signature, caught during a solar eclipse in 1868. On Earth, it makes up just 0.0005 percent of the air we breathe, and while other important gases like hydrogen and oxygen can be easily separated from more complex molecules, helium is notoriously stable and doesn’t combine with other elements. That leaves just one primary source for helium on Earth: deep within the ground. As radioactive elements like uranium and thorium break down, they throw off helium atoms that then become trapped in natural gas formations. “There are competing hypotheses as to why there is even helium in natural gas anywhere,” said geologist Ranie Lynds, the manager of the Wyoming State Geological Survey’s Energy & Mineral Resources division. “Some people have it as being mantle-driven, coming from a lot deeper in the earth, and because it’s so light it’s able to make its way up to the surface where it’s stored with natural gas.” “Other people have argued it forms more from uranium and thorium decay in sedimentary rocks, then it’s moved along with water through these systems,” Lynds added. Regardless of how it got there, there’s still not much to go around – helium comprises less than 0.3 percent of most commercial natural gas deposits. But in a handful of places those concentrations rise to as high as 8 percent, making helium extraction economically viable. In Wyoming, all the state’s commercially-produced helium comes from the LaBarge field in western Sublette County. Natural gas extracted from LaBarge is piped down to ExxonMobil’s Shute Creek natural gas processing plant in eastern Lincoln County, where the helium is separated out from other gases like methane and carbon dioxide. “The CO2 is sold for enhanced oil recovery opportunities and the methane is used for natural gas sales,” Quillinan said. “The helium concentration is only about 0.6 percent of the gas that comes out, but there’s not many places in the world where you can find helium, so even at those low percentages, it becomes economic to produce.” Quillinan noted that helium has to be cooled to almost absolute zero – the lowest physically-possible temperature – in order to be liquefied for storage and shipment. And even then, helium’s ultra-light nature makes it hard to keep contained. Once it’s gone, it’s gone for good, since even Earth’s gravity isn’t enough to keep it from just floating off into space. “It can be very difficult to handle,” Quillinan said. “I’m an isotope geochemist, and one problem with even sampling isotopes of helium is you can’t use glass containers, because it’ll just slip through the glass.” The hassle is more than worth it, however. At least ExxonMobil seems to think so: figures published in 2014 in the scientific journal “Minerals” show that Wyoming accounted for 43 percent of U.S. helium production and 31 percent of global production from 2000 to 2012. “Looking at the numbers for 2012 specifically, Wyoming does top the list, then very close behind it is Kansas, followed by Texas, then Colorado and Oklahoma,” Lynds said. “Right now there’s pretty significant production in Wyoming and I would expect that to continue.” In January, Wyoming State Geologist Erin Campbell wrote that, along with uranium, helium has some of the best development potential of any mineral material in the state. In addition to the known supplies at LaBarge and elsewhere in southwest Wyoming, Campbell said the WSGS “estimates 14.78 billion cubic feet of marginally economic and subeconomic helium resources exist … in the Greater Green River, Wind River, Powder River, and Bighorn basins and the western Wyoming thrust belt.” But while those untapped resources may one day help to meet global demand for the gas, industry experts expect the current shortage will likely last through the remainder of this year, unless either demand starts dropping or until other large-scale helium projects in Qatar and Russia come online in 2020 and beyond.

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Helium, A Pending Disaster That No One Is Talking About

Unless we’re spending time under water or in outer space, we kind of take oxygen for granted. It’s literally everywhere, completely surrounding us. And it’s quite renewable, as long as we fill our environment with plants and carbon dioxide. But the same can’t be true about oxygen’s close neighbor on the periodic table of elements — helium. We know it best as what makes balloons float, and (if we happen to breathe a little bit in) our voices sound funny. What we don’t realize, however, is how much our society actually depends on helium. In fact, according to National Geographic, it’s our best coolant, used in everything from MRIs to computer chip production — even something deep divers mix with oxygen to help avoid decompression sickness. There is more helium in the universe than any other element, save hydrogen. Yet, here on Earth, it’s actually quite hard to find. And we’re running out of it. Seriously. And there’s no economical way to make more. Unless, of course, someone can recreate nuclear fusion of hydrogen in places like our sun. Actually, most of the helium we use on this planet comes from the natural radioactive decay of elements like thorium and uranium inside the Earth’s crust. Because it’s so light, it tries to float to the surface, eventually finding itself stuck not too far below the surface. Mining — especially for natural gases — seems to be the best way to find helium. But once those pockets are discovered and mined, there’s really no way to replenish it. We have spent a lot of time looking for ways to support our environment while making our lives better. And while banning plastic bags, recycling and renewable energy is important — so is conserving helium. At this point, there is maybe a century of helium left. And when it’s gone, it’s gone. After years of depressed pricing as the United States rid itself of a huge stockpile of helium, we continue to waste it every single day. That needs to stop. Efforts are being made in labs and other places to try and recycle helium after it’s used, but there’s no real good way to reuse helium once it’s used in silly social practices, like balloons. We don’t want to be party poopers, but we have no choice. We all will get to enjoy helium and benefit from it, but what about our grandchildren? Conservation is the only way to protect our helium supplies. And there’s no better time to start than right now.

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Party Stores Struggle To Stay Afloat During Helium Shortage

A helium shortage that’s been years in the making has local party businesses hurting for the natural gas. The element is used for a lot more than just party balloons, which is increasing demand for a dwindling supply. Balloon Emporium in Pasadena has been hit this year by the shortage. General manager Shane Sourgose said the store’s helium supplier hasn’t been able to fulfill a full order and deliver the tanks they need to meet demand. “Let’s say we order 50.They gave us half of our order,” Sourgose said. “Due to that scale-back we have to then scale back our operation. We had to regrettably deny clients that were looking for helium tank rentals and refills. But we did have a wait list.” Chemist Dr. Louise Huang at Azusa Pacific University says this is the third helium shortage in the last decade. The element is used in various ways including to cool the magnets used in MRI machines, to temper rocket fuel so it won’t burn or explode, to prevent decompression sickness in deep sea diving, for fiber optics, semiconductors, and blimps. “There are very significant and non-negotiable uses in medical and research facilities,” Dr. Huang said. “So those are the usages that are non-negotiable and of more concern than helium balloons.” As demand for helium increases, so does the need to prioritize how it’s used. “We can’t really produce or make more helium per se because it is actually a bi-product as natural gas mining occurs,” Dr. Huang said. Sourgose has been helping customers during the shortage by selling small helium tanks, and using air instead of helium for some balloon displays. Recently he’s been able to get more helium from his supplier, but still plans to conserve its use. “We still have to treat it like a rarity,” he said.

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Exploration In Western Canada Could Hold The Answer To The Global Helium Shortage

The world is currently experiencing its third major helium shortage in the past 14 years, putting science and industry at risk. Helium is a key gas used in industries like space exploration, health care and technology. While everyone is familiar with helium’s use in party balloons, the lighter-than-air element has many more important uses in semiconductor manufacturing, medical imaging and other technological applications. Helium is generated deep underground by the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium over geological timescales. It gets trapped in non-porous rock formations. The only way to find helium is to drill exploration wells deep into the subsurface. Scientists are facing a number of new challenges to get a reliable supply of helium for their research programs. The shortage has consistently raised helium prices; research applications like gas chromatography, mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy take a backseat to helium needs in health care.

A global helium shortage has affected several industries, including entertainment, health care, technology, education and research.

I am the principal investigator for a research group that has been involved with sampling and analysis of some of the recently drilled helium wells in Saskatchewan.

New helium sources

With no guarantee of a steady supply, the cost of helium used for research has increased over 15 per cent over the past four years when buying individual tanks of gas. At these prices, universities have been forced to ration due to a lack of supply, while wholesale prices have risen to $500 or more for bulk supply. Over the past few years, a number of start-up companies have been successful in new exploration and production efforts in Western Canada. An American company opened the first new helium production facility in Canada in 2016 since Canadian Helium stopped production from their plant near Swift Current, Sask., in the early 1970s. Calgary-based North American Helium has also been active on the exploration front, with six successful wells completed as of last summer. That company has over one million acres of helium permits and leases and is preparing for the construction of its first production plant. A number of companies have been bringing smaller-scale production online in the United States for the last few decades, but even with an existing discovery, it takes years to develop a well from concept to plant. With production and sales from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management helium reserve coming to an end, there is a need for new North American helium production. The industry has relied on discoveries made by companies exploring for oil in the 1960s, including three fields in Saskatchewan. Only recently have companies started drilling exploration wells targeting helium.

The Saskatchewan advantage

What makes the helium resource in Western Canada so attractive is the gas composition itself, which differs from other helium resources in other parts of the world. These have high levels of carbon dioxide or methane, but the helium wells in Western Canada are associated with underground reservoirs of nitrogen gas. Because nitrogen is benign and already makes up 78 per cent of Earth’s atmosphere, these projects don’t require large pipelines for methane recovery or carbon dioxide disposal. Extracting this resource will have a much smaller environmental footprint in Canada.

Graduate student Karly Dominato on a helium drilling project in Saskatchewan in the fall of 2018. Scott Mundle, Author provided

Western Canada has another huge advantage over other areas with potential for helium exploration, like central Australia or Siberia. All of the major recent historical helium discoveries in Canada, are in areas that have already seen significant oil and gas development. This means that the growing helium exploration industry can piggyback on decades of investment by oil and gas companies, such as existing seismic data and well control. What is also likely contributing to higher levels of investment and activity is the proven nature of the opportunity for helium extraction and the maturity of the exploration industry. Western Canada also hosts a huge and capable oil-service sector, providing the skills, expertise and tools to get wells drilled and brought online in a timely fashion. In other jurisdictions seeing interest for helium exploration, such as Tanzania in East Africa, whether due to financial constraints or the lack of an oil service sector, none of the companies targeting helium in East Africa have yet to successfully drill a helium production well. With a nascent helium exploration and production industry reaching maturity, multiple companies active in the area, a small environmental footprint and attractive economics, Western Canada is now poised to become a leader in the future production of helium. These new explorers are well positioned to fill the supply gap.

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