Helium Shortage Leads World to Reconsider Applications, Procedures for Efficient Use

The global market is facing its third shortage of helium. Beginning in the spring of 2018, a series of planned and unplanned outages affected global access to supply. While many may immediately think this means party balloons are at the greatest risk, those who know and use helium—scientists, researchers, doctors, engineers, physicists and students across the world—are taking serious note. As helium is a nonrenewable resource, the recurring shortages are cause for concern for many essential global industries including medicine, energy, national defense, scientific research and space exploration.

The US Department of the Interior has classified helium as one of 35 elements or materials that are considered “critical for national security and economic stability.” The Geological Survey reports that over 32% of all helium produced goes to cryogenic applications. Primarily, liquid helium is used to cool superconducting magnets and various instruments that only operate at cryogenic temperatures including accelerators, space telescopes and satellite technology. The largest source of worldwide helium consumption used for cooling of superconducting magnets is MRI technology. Magnetic Resonance Imaging accounts for 20% of all global use. Welding and laboratory use follow with 17% and 10%, respectively. Other helium applications include fiber optics, leak detection, pressurization, electronics like silicon wafers for integrated circuits and artificial breathing systems—each accounting for less than 6% of usage.

Surprisingly, balloons are taking a toll on global supply that cannot be overlooked. Over 8% of all helium goes towards balloon inflation. According to the USGS, the balloon industry is the fourth leading consumer of the total global helium market. While the helium industry has taken notice of the recurring shortages and has adapted to conserve and reuse as much helium as possible, balloons are routinely single use and release their helium into the atmosphere as they are discarded, dispersing this valuable resource.

Of course, party balloons are not the major cause for helium shortage 3.0. While helium is abundant throughout the universe, the comparatively small amount accessible on Earth is only mined in a handful of locations—some of which have gone offline for both scheduled and unplanned occurrences over the past two years. According to the US Geological Survey, the US leads current global helium production with a total of 55% of the world’s yearly production—mostly mined in Texas and the “four corners” region of the American Southwest—while Qatar, Algeria and Russia follow with 32%, 6% and 3.2%, respectively. The large difference between the top two producers and the rest of the world illustrates the challenge of acquiring helium and contributes to the difficulty of distributing helium worldwide.

New fields are being identified in Tanzania and other areas of the tectonic region referred to as the East African Rift System that appear to contain large amounts of helium. Though the Tanzanian field was discovered in 2016, the area is still being researched and has yet to produce helium. Other potential fields have been discovered in Russia, positioning the country to rise through the list of top producers and provide an infusion to reserves. Again, these fields have yet to produce helium. Both the Tanzanian and Russian fields could undergo research and development for a decade before they start shipping helium.

Many organizations and institutions have taken to promoting helium conservation and responsible use. On July 10, the 111th anniversary of the first liquefaction of helium, Quantum Design celebrated Helium Conservation Day—an effort that will be continued annually. Additionally, many of the top consumers of helium are looking to reduce their impact on the current supply. MRI manufacturers like Phillips are introducing new designs that promise massively reduced or zero helium needs. Particle accelerators and specialized labs—like those at the DOE national labs—are also looking towards new designs that significantly minimize waste and increase the amount of recyclable helium from their systems. Manufacturers also offer helium reliquefiers, including many CSA Corporate Sustaining Members. A complete list of suppliers is available in the CSA online Buyer’s Guide at csabg.org.

One of the most significant advances in the field of helium conservation was the introduction of the Floating Pressure (FP)-Ganni cycle, pioneered by Dr. Rao Ganni, Director of MSU Cryogenics Initiative and the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, and his team. This process has been incorporated in the base design for the NASA- JSC Chamber-A 20 K refrigerator, Jlab’s 12GeV upgrade and the MSU-FRIB refrigeration systems. This patented refrigerator process cycle is applicable for all cryogenic temperatures. In the FP-Ganni cycle, the compressors handling the recycle flow are allowed to “float” in pressure, but at a relatively constant pressure ratio. This allows optimum compressor and turbine efficiencies to be maintained over a wide load range without regulating turbine inlet valves or adding additional heat loads. This process cycle has demonstrated positive effects in improving the operational efficiency, minimizing the maintenance, operation and capital equipment cost and in reducing helium loss of many cryogenic plants—including the NSCL at MSU, SNS at ORNL, the RHIC at BNL and Chamber-A at NASA-JSC. This process provides a minimum supply pressure and mass flow necessary to meet the required refrigeration capacity. This results in nearly constant efficiency down to 30% of the maximum load. And since this supply pressure is usually well below system relief valve set points, the helium loss is minimized. This also minimizes equipment stress, increasing reliability. The combined operational power cost savings at these locations using the FP-Ganni cycle is in the millions of dollars, all while meeting the refrigeration capacity needs. More than 10 MW in combined power reduction, and a reduction of more than 80% in helium losses, has been realized at systems based on the Ganni cycle in the base design. To learn more about the FP-Ganni cycle, visit 2csa.us/gannicycle.

This third helium shortage is a serious challenge for today’s users. However, the term “shortage” may be misleading. According to the Department of the Interior, there is at least a century’s worth of helium in known reserves. Of course, this does not take into consideration significant, unforeseen surges in consumption—much like the increased demand from the surge in superconducting technology research and applications seen recently in Asia. As new technology develops, the current rate of consumption may greatly increase and reduce the longevity of the supply.

There is a good chance that new helium fields will be discovered and processed sometime between now and the helium “deadline,” but a current trend in research and development may provide an unexpected new source. Nuclear fusion’s main byproduct is helium and, today, many researchers and engineers believe that fusion may be crucial for a clean energy future. Accordingly, teams across the world are working towards a sustainable, realistic form of nuclear fusion. Though it could be decades away, the world may someday be able to look at helium shortages as a thing of the past. ■