Short Supply Of Helium Hits Scientific Research, Tech Firms And Balloons

A number of industries have been affected by a major helium shortage and there is no clarity on how the issues would be resolved.

While it is best known among the public of being used in balloons, this naturally occurring gas is also very important in a number of medical and aerospace technologies which includes some of the .most modern technologies being used today.

But the shortage of helium supply has crippled a number of businesses.

Production or helium is currently neither efficient nor economical. There are just a few techniques of extracting this resource such as through extraction from natural underground deposits or bringing it out as a byproduct from the production of natural gas.

One of the issues with helium is that it is a very light gas and can float away into the atmosphere soon if not captured quickly.

According to gas industry publication Gasworld, about 75 percent of the world’s helium are produced from just three main sources – sites in Qatar, Wyoming and Texas.

However, according to a 2013 law, the U.S. government will no longer by producing helium.

According to Gasworld, while there is no future trading market in helium, there was a jump in prices of crude helium an astounding 135 per cent year-on-year for its 2019 delivery because of a U.S. government auction undertaken by the Bureau of Land Management last September. That was the last occasion that helium reserves were sold to private industry by the US government.

On the other hand, production of helium in the US has also dropped because of a system of rationing of the gas implemented by US government since February of 2018 following the economic embargo of Qatar by a group of Middle East countries lead by Saudi Arabia. That resulted in about 30 per cent of the global helium supply was taken off the supply chain causing chaos for weeks.

Phil Kornbluth, a veteran helium industry consultant, wrote in a note that the market has been further impacted by unplanned plant outages and delay in production start in new supplies..

But there is a rising demand for the gas from high-tech manufacturing, including demand from China.

The market would be severely impacted because of any disruption in the global supply chain since it has only a few dominant players.

“The problem is, helium is being used up faster than it can be produced these days,” wrote Anders Bylund, an analyst at Motley Fool in a recent note.

In order to avert a crisis situation because of shortages and high prices, the use of recycled helium is being promoted by some industries and scientific communities.

“During shortages, science is far down the delivery list, because bigger customers get priority … And without helium, scientists can be forced to reschedule or abandon experiments, and to place costly and complicated equipment in shutdown,” a 2017 editorial in the scientific journal Nature said.

“Recycling would save money in the long term, prevent the withering of helium-dependent research, and provide a much needed buffer against temporary shortages,” it added.

“By the end of the decade, international helium extraction facilities are likely to become the main source of supply for world helium users,” said the United States Geological Survey in a report.

(Adapted from CNBC.com)

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