Using helium in our everyday lives often goes unnoticed. In fact, you may have even assumed that helium isn’t exactly essential to our everyday lives. In reality, however, various industries and sectors use helium and use more of it every year.
Besides being widely used by the manufacturing industry as a non-reactive gas in pressure testing and also a useful inert medium for growing crystals in semiconductor production processes, there are several other uses for helium that you may not be aware of.
It’s perhaps surprising then to learn that there is an impending global shortage of helium which could have implications for many industries across the globe. Read on to find out more about this imminent crisis.
What is Helium?
The Element Helium was first discovered in 1882 by two scientists, Clemens Winkler, a German physicist, and Sir William Ramsay, a Scottish chemist, who discovered it in uranium ore. It is a colorless, odorless, non-toxic, and non-flammable noble gas with the lowest boiling point of any known gas—just 4º C.
Because of its low boiling point, it is the only gas that remains a liquid at standard temperature and pressure throughout the universe. Therefore, it is an extremely useful substance.
As well as being used in many industries, helium is also a useful tool for scientists in providing insights into the earth’s geology, as well as for carrying out various types of experiments in fields such as astrophysics, nuclear physics, low-temperature physics, and quantum physics.
Various healthcare applications, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), balloon air dissection, and nephron function analysis, also use helium.
Why is there a Shortage of Helium?
Helium is a non-renewable resource, and approximately one-fifth of the world’s helium is situated in natural gas fields found within Texas.
Scheduled to run out of helium by the end of 2021, these fields have led to the emergence of a global helium shortage over the past few years. The main reason for the helium shortage is the fact that this gas is being extracted from the ground at a far greater rate than it is being replenished.
Oil and gas extraction produces helium as a by-product, and natural gas extraction often extracts it alongside other hydrocarbons. It comes to the surface as a mixture of other gases, including carbon dioxide, nitrogen, methane, and hydrogen. Because it is more expensive to separate the helium from these other gases, it is often simply left in the ground, leading to a growing gas shortage.
Experts believe natural gas fields in the United States are currently producing around six billion cubic feet of helium per year, which is not nearly enough for the nine billion cubic feet of helium that the country consumes.
The Good News
Although the news surrounding the impending shortage of helium isn’t great, a few crumbs of comfort have come out of this situation. For example, the shortage has been creeping up on us slowly. It has allowed companies that depend on helium to develop creative solutions, such as being more frugal with their helium usage.
There have also been several attempts to reduce the amount of helium left in the ground during natural gas extraction. These attempts have included re-opening old helium plants previously shut down and building new helium plants.
Another attempt has included increasing the amount of helium being recovered from field separations and building more helium pipelines.
The Bad News
Unfortunately, even if we solve this impending helium shortage, there will be an adequate gas supply in the future, so there will probably be more shortages. This is because helium is a non-renewable resource and not readily replenished, meaning it will eventually run out.
Another negative consequence of the impending shortage of helium is that it could increase the cost of various products and services. For example, various industries use helium, including healthcare, manufacturing (semiconductor production), and scientific research.
Helium is essential for many activities and experiments, which could include an increase in the cost of MRI scans and the cost of operating MRI machines. In addition, the price of products that rely on helium, such as balloons, could also increase.
How can we solve the global helium shortage?
To solve the global helium shortage, it’s important to understand why it is occurring.
As explained above, the main reason for the shortage is that helium is being extracted from the ground at a far greater rate than it is being replenished. Therefore, to solve the impending helium shortage, we must find a way to reduce the amount of helium being extracted from the ground and, simultaneously, find a way to replenish it.
One proposed solution is encouraging more private investment in helium exploration and production, and private companies can reap greater financial rewards from helium exploration than public firms. Hopefully, this motivates the exploration of helium reserves in the ground, leading to less helium being extracted and more being left in the ground.
Another proposed solution is reducing the helium lost during natural gas extraction. Although increasing the amount of helium we recover may also have a positive impact. Estimates show it would only make a difference of around 40 million cubic feet of helium annually (pdf), not nearly enough to make a real difference.
We must figure out how to reduce the amount of helium lost during natural gas extraction.
Although we must solve the helium shortage, it is also important that we don’t forget about the need to replenish the gas.
As it is a non-renewable resource, we ensure the helium remains in the ground, ready to be brought to the surface when needed. Helium is a vital tool for scientists and an essential resource in many industries, so we mustn’t run out of it now.
That said, we also need to be aware of the impending shortage and ensure we are being frugal with our helium usage.