The coronavirus pandemic may have deflated uncounted birthday celebrations, but that’s been good news for physicists and chemists who need an assured supply of helium. Still, many scientists say the already historically high prices for the light element are continuing to rise.
As demand for party balloons—which account for 10% or more of total helium use, according to market consultant Phil Kornbluth—disappeared in March, and as industrial demand slowed in concert with shelter-in-place orders, the global helium supply crunch of the past two years abruptly ended. “It was like somebody flipped a light switch. It went from shortage to an ample supply within a month,” says Kornbluth. The current supply situation, he says, is “between ample and plentiful.”
Unlike last year, when some scientists were forced to shut down their superconducting magnets for lack of helium (see Physics Today, April 2019, page 26), researchers now report they have no trouble getting the helium they need. Even with their laboratories shut down during the pandemic, scientists have had to periodically add helium to their magnets to keep them at or below liquid helium’s boiling point of 4.2 K. If they warm, magnets will quench—transition suddenly to a nonsuperconducting state—and suffer potentially permanent damage.
An unambiguous indicator of an ample supply, says Kornbluth, was the lifting in March of rationing to the four refiners that draw from the federal helium reserve. Refiners had been limited to drawing amounts that were below their requirements since June 2017, when supply from Qatar was cut off by a Saudi-led blockade. “The BLM [Bureau of Land Management] is saying come get as much as you want,” he says. What’s more, some producers have recently been injecting helium into the reserve’s underground dome, storing it for future use.
But prices in many cases have defied the laws of supply and demand, according to users. Alexander Blumenfeld, an analytical instrumentation supervisor at the University of Idaho, says his cost has more than doubled in the past year, to $35 per liter. Joseph Dumais, a chemist at Boise State University in Idaho, says two suppliers recently quoted a price of $3800 for a 100-liter dewar of liquid helium, including shipping—more than double the $1460 he paid last summer, when supplies were tight. And Stuart Brown, a UCLA condensed-matter physicist, says his cost for liquid helium jumped 15% this spring, even though UC has a systemwide helium supply contract from Matheson.
“No supplier has told me the stops are off, you can get all the helium you need,” says Joseph DiVerdi, a Colorado State University chemist who orders a 60-liter dewar every 8–13 weeks to fill his 8-tesla superconducting magnet. “No one said to me we’re going to drop the price. If there’s anything tangibly different, it’s that the suppliers aren’t crying that they can’t get helium.”
Dumais saw his cost soar after the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) early this year ended a buying arrangement that had provided Boise State and 19 other participating universities some bargaining power with helium suppliers. Mark Elsesser, an associate director of government affairs at the American Physical Society (APS) who helped organize the DLA consortium, says the agency blamed the discontinuation of the consortium on staffing constraints.
More fortunate is Arthur Low, a chemist at Tarleton State University in Texas, who says his cost is unchanged from what he paid through the DLA: $1107 for the 60 liters he orders every six months. “The DLA consortium was very nice, but they weren’t very efficient in submitting invoices so we could pay them,” Low says.
Sophia Hayes, a chemist at Washington University in St Louis who maintains several nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers, says her cost has been stable under the university’s long-term helium supply contract. Hayes keeps a close eye on the helium supply situation for NMR users and says she hasn’t heard of problems this year. In fact, she says a source in Europe told her that helium prices had fallen there. In what that source described as an unprecedented move, one supplier had asked if the user would be willing to buy more helium than had been contracted for.
Hayes had to move one of her magnets last year. Rather than letting the helium boil off and warming the magnet up, she chose to risk moving it at cryogenic temperatures. The magnet broke in transit. She says the cost of helium was a factor in that unfortunate decision.
Recurrent helium shortages and high prices have led some academic researchers to install liquefiers to recycle helium that boils off from their instruments. UCLA’s liquefier, which was pieced together over five years with support from NSF, has cut by 90% the 100 liters of helium per week Brown used to buy to cool his three magnets. At current prices, his annual gas bill now totals only $10 000, compared with $100 000 without the liquefier, he says.
A new, $110 000 liquefier at the University of Idaho is expected to recycle most of the helium needed for three NMR magnets, an electron paramagnetic resonance magnet, and a Mössbauer spectrometer, says Blumenfeld. As an added benefit, the new machine will enable the university to purchase its helium in gaseous form instead of liquid, for a substantial cost savings, he says. The liquefier was fired up in February, but a coolant leak that went undetected for several weeks during the coronavirus shutdown caused the loss of around 35 liters of helium.
Some users say they don’t receive the full amount of liquid helium ordered. Although suppliers deliver by weight, researchers “thump” the tank to determine how much of it is liquid. When a narrow tube is inserted into the tank, mechanical oscillations are spontaneously generated when the probe touches liquid, providing a more accurate measurement, says DiVerdi. “I order 60 liters and I never get that,” he laments. Having to pay for the full 60 “is basically a surcharge or a tip.”
With an output of 68 million cubic meters last year, the US is the world’s largest helium producer, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS). Domestic consumption was estimated to be steady at about 40 million cubic meters. The largest use by far in the US (30%) is for health care, mainly magnetic resonance imaging. Analytical and laboratory applications account for 17%, and engineering and scientific applications 6%, according to the USGS.
Whether helium shortages will recur as economies slowly recover from the pandemic is an open question. Forecasts differ widely on future availability. New and expanded liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants that produce helium as a by-product are expected to begin operation in Qatar and Algeria later this year, adding supply that will probably exceed any increased demand, says Kornbluth. By the middle of next year, Russia’s Gazprom is expected to start up its all-new Amur natural gas processing and helium production facility in Siberia.
But a report by Edison Investment Research says declining production from the Hugoton gas field in Kansas, a major helium source, and depletion of helium in the federal reserve will decrease the global supply. The new sources in Qatar and Russia are both liable to delays, the report warns, based on experience at other large oil and gas developments worldwide.
For the longer term, demand for LNG should decline as the world responds to climate change by moving away from fossil fuels, says Jon Gluyas, a geologist at the University of Durham in the UK, who has advised helium prospectors. There are multiple locations around the globe where helium occurs without hydrocarbons, he notes, but relatively few prospectors have looked for helium alone.
One company, Helium One, owns the right to develop several locations in a Tanzania rift valley where helium has been detected in gases seeping from the ground. Gluyas, who helped characterize the seeps, says the gases are hydrocarbon-free and contain as much as 10% helium. By comparison, the concentration of helium in the US natural gas formations from where it is extracted is roughly 0.3%, and it is about 0.1% in Qatar, he says. At this early stage of exploration, it isn’t clear if the Tanzanian prospects will be developed.
For decades the US helium reserve had played a major role in the global helium supply–demand equation. Legislation passed in 2013 ordered the sale of all reserve assets by September 2021, including the remaining crude helium (50–70% pure) and the pipeline that distributes it to refiners. In response, the BLM, which manages the reserve, sold off most of the stored helium to all users until 2018, when 3 billion cubic feet (84 million cubic meters) remained. Since then, sales have been restricted to federal users, including universities that use helium for federally sponsored research. The sale deadline for the remaining crude helium and assets has been extended to 30 September 2022, but Kornbluth predicts the privatization likely won’t be completed until at least 2023.
APS recently urged House and Senate members to continue allowing federally supported researchers to access the remaining helium even after the reserve assets are sold off, though it didn’t specifically ask for exclusive access for scientists. “The potential sale of the reserve and its remaining helium, along with notable supply chain disruptions, are impacting the operations of U.S. scientific, medical and industrial activities,” said the 4 May letter signed by APS president Philip Bucksbaum and the chairs of four APS divisions. Citing a 2019 survey of its members, the society leaders said in the letter that some researchers were having “difficulty securing helium at any price” and warned that becoming dependent on foreign sources “would not be prudent” for scientists.
Kornbluth says there is no rational basis for requiring the buyer of the stockpile to reserve it for scientific users. “No one would buy the assets if their hands would be tied,” he says. “If the helium was to be reserved for scientific users, it would make more sense for the government to simply retain the remaining reserve and continue to operate the pipeline.”
But Elsesser, who says the reserve served as a “flywheel” during shortages, says retaining government ownership is a political nonstarter. He notes that the 2013 legislation was passed with strong bipartisan support, and lawmakers are not about to reverse an action that will bring revenue into the Treasury.
Kornbluth says the reserve sale won’t shock the supply chain if the expected new sources become a reality: “By the time the reserve assets are privatized, helium shortage 3.0 will be in the rearview mirror . . . and helium supply should be plentiful.”