The Importance of Helium and the Helium Shortage
This is the first of four articles on the subject of helium. I have learned the following as a result of my research:
- There are two forms of helium, helium-3 and helium-4
- This Article is strictly about helium-4 which is plentiful on earth
- Helium-3 is rare on the earth but plentiful on the moon and asteroids.
- Helium-3 is the focus of the following two articles: Mining the Moon for Helium-3 and
Mining the Moon for Helium-3: Part 2.
If you are like me, when you think of helium, the first thing to come to mind is helium party balloons. Second is the squeaky voices at the party. Another thing I think of is blimps. Beyond that, I’ve never given helium much thought, until I sat down to right this article of course.
Of all the elements on the periodic table and in the universe, helium is the second most abundant and the second lightest. Helium appears in nature as helium-3 which is rare and helium-4 which is abundant. These are two ions of the same element. Hydrogen takes the blue ribbon as the lightest and most abundant. With so much helium-4 around, we might not consider that there could ever be a helium shortage, but there is. Part of the reason for the shortage is the many uses of this important chemical element.
Video of Rep. Doc Hastings (R) Washington on H.R. 527, Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act.
The health care industry uses helium-4 to detect, diagnose and treat many diseases and conditions. Most of the uses of helium take advantage of its cooling effect. Here are just a few examples:
- Cooling electromagnets in MRI machines.
- Cooling laboratory cryostats used to freeze fresh tissue during surgery so that it can be cut into extremely thin sections and used for diagnosis.
- Treating heart, asthma, cancer and burn patients.
- Scuba tanks.
- Nuclear reactors.
- Gas chromatography
- Particle accelerators.
- Certain types of welding.
- Silicon wafers for semiconductors.
Important Use of Helium 4 in Hospital Laboratories
The amount of helium-4 the world uses is only half the story concerning the shortage of helium-4 today. There is a lot of helium-4 waiting to be mined. It is a by product of natural gas located in the Texas panhandle. If there is so much of this gas around, why is there a shortage of helium-4?
Because of the abundance of helium-4 in Texas, the U.S. government established a stockpile of the gas in 1925 for use in national defense. The surplus still exists near Amarillo, Texas and is overseen by the U.S. Navy and the Department of the Interior. The government has also sold helium-4 to the rest of the world at artificially reduced rates and for decades held a monopoly on helium-4 production.
National Helium Reserve
In 1960, the U.S. federal government took steps to begin shifting helium-4 production to the private sector. The price of helium-4 purchased from the government, though still low, has experienced wide fluctuations over the years since 1960. This has made it difficult for companies which use the gas, to establish budgets for purchasing it. In 1996 the federal government attempted to put into effect a plan which would have gotten it out of the helium-4 business altogether by 2015.
The second half of the story concerning the shortage of helium-4 has to do with the low prices the government continues to charge the rest of the world for this important gas. The private sector is dragging its feet when it comes to increasing helium-4 production because it can’t compete with the governments low prices. As a result, the U.S. federal government is not likely to be able to cease helium-4 production by 2015. At the same time that the world is failing to increase helium-4 production in the private sector, the government's surplus is running low. If the U.S. government runs out of helium-4, so does the health care industry and every other industry in the world. This is the true source of the worldwide helium-4 shortage.
There is a solution to this dilemma. If the government begins selling helium-4 at market prices, then private companies will be able to compete and will step up their own production. The desired result would be twofold. First, the government would be able to get out of the helium-4 business. Second, private enterprise would increase its output of helium-4, thereby solving the helium shortage problem.
Update on the Continuing Helium Shortage, 3/22/2019
According to a story by KXAN, an NBC affiliate (December 6, 2018), the reasons for the shortage are sanctions on overseas supplies, lower U.S. production, and prioritizing what's available for military and medical uses.
A February 2019 report on the web site, Helium Scarcity, says that there has been a 10% increase in helium demand over the last decade, and it is likely to continue into 2020. The Federal Helium System in Amarillo, TX is set to stop production in 2021 and will move to a helium system in the private sector.