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Helium sell-off risks future supply

27 Jan 2010 Michael Banks
In short supply

The US must stop selling off its helium reserves so that the country has enough of the gas to meet the needs of researchers and medical programmes. That is the conclusion of a new report, Selling the Nation’s Helium Reserve, published by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). It says that failure to halt the sale of helium could lead to a drop in supply for the gas, which is vital for research into magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques and low-temperature physics.

Helium is mostly produced by extracting it from natural gas fields, which contain up to 7% helium. There is estimated to be about 8.6 million tonnes of helium in the world, with the US having the biggest fraction of reserves at 35% followed by Qatar with 20%. About 32,000 tonnes of helium were produced around the world in 2008, three-quarters of which came from the US alone.

The US began building a huge stockpile of helium in 1925 as a strategic supply of gas for airships, and the reserve later became an important source of coolant for rockets during the Cold War. In 1996, however, the Helium Privatization Act came into law allowing US companies to recover and sell the helium, which is mainly stored in Amarillo, Texas, in a natural geological gas storage rock formation. The act was deliberately designed to exhaust the US stockpile by 2015 so that the government could recoup the cost of setting up the facility.

However, the report says that selling off the helium stockpile “has adversely affected critical users of helium and is not in the best interest of the US taxpayers or the country.” One problem posed by the selling off the stockpile, which the report says accounts for up to a third of global demand, is that the price for helium is low, being “not set by current market conditions but by the terms of the 1996 Act”. The fear is that once the supplies run out, the price will shoot up.

The NAS report, written by an 18-strong panel led by geologist Charles Groat from the University of Texas, recommends opening the price of federally owned helium to the market. It also warns that the US will become a net importer of helium in the next 10–15 years if it does not stop selling its reserves and will have to get its helium from new sources such as from the Middle East or Russia.

“US government sales are assumed to end by 2015, with future supplies coming from new extraction plants both in the US and elsewhere,” says William Nuttall, from the Cambridge Judge Business School, who, in collaboration with the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire and the gas-supplying firm BOC developed a model for the future of helium supply and use. “Supplies in the US are steadying while those in Europe, the Middle East and Asia are increasing.”

MRI uses the biggest chunk of the world’s helium, requiring 7000 tonnes (22% of the total) every year to cool the superconducting magnets that lie at the heart of these devices. However, large-scale research facilities also use lots of helium, with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN requiring 150 tonnes of liquid helium last year to cool the 27 km ring and the ITER fusion project that is being built in France planning to use 50 tonnes once it is up and running in 2018.

One option to relieve the demand for helium is to develop new technologies that do not need the gas. “Intermittent shortages and price rises have now become an unwelcome feature of helium use and this encourages high-tech users, particularly those using cryogenics, to substitute technologies,” says Richard Clarke at the Culham centre. He adds that investment in new helium production facilities is also necessary.

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