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Where is all the helium?

Over the last decade, there has been marked growth in worldwide demand for helium. For this reason, the global helium markets continue to experience severe shortages in supply. This has even come to the media’s attention as a more serious issue than previously believed.

Helium, the coldest chemical element on Earth and the least soluble of all gases, is primarily valued for its chemical characteristics. Worldwide, it is in greatest demand for the cooling of superconducting magnets in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) devices used in hospitals. The second major user of helium is in the electronics industry – particularly in silicon wafer production processes. Helium is also used to create strong magnetic fields in particle accelerators and in many research and development centers, in welding and cutting, fiber-optics, aerospace applications, leak-testing and the development of breathing mixtures used in deep-sea diving.

Helium is different to other atmospheric gases, such as oxygen and nitrogen, in the sense that it is a by-product of liquefied natural gas (LNG) processing. Because helium is trapped in the subsurface, under the same conditions as natural gas, the planet’s largest natural concentrations of helium are found in natural gas, from which most commercial helium is extracted.

Dan Baciu, Linde Gas’ Head of Global Helium Business Development, says, “Today, the entire industrial gases industry is facing one of the most prolonged shortages in the global helium supply. On a temporary basis, this makes it challenging for us to meet all of our customers’ requirements. However, with efforts being made to secure additional helium sources, we expect the situation to improve.”

The greatest demand for helium can be found in the U.S (45%), while Europe is the second largest market, accounting for around 25% of worldwide helium demand.

The main source of helium is located in the U.S, followed by Algeria, Qatar, Australia and Russia. Most U.S. production is related to BLM (Bureau of Land and Management), which manages the world’s largest helium reserve. In recent years, BLM-related production has considerably diminished, affecting the global supply chain and leading to a global helium deficit. In the coming years, this may lead the U.S to switch from being a helium exporter to a net importer.

Dan Baciu adds, “Although the situation is challenging for all suppliers in the world, measures are being taken to mitigate the problem. To relieve the shortage, the industry has been actively working on identifying alternative ways of bringing additional helium sources to the market. In mid 2012, a new helium plant will begin operating in Riley Ridge (Wyoming, U.S), producing 5.7 million cubic meters of helium per year. Another plant in Skikda, Algeria, will increase capacity in the second half of 2012, with an annual expected output of 13 million cubic meters per year.

“During the shortage, in terms of product allocation we are strongly prioritizing our contracted customers, in order to supply them with the volumes they require, so that their daily production will not be affected and they can continuously rely on us as a long-term and trustworthy partner,” comments Patrik Flygar, AGA’s Regional Segment Manager for Specialty Gases.

Where is all the helium?