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Helium shortage hampers research and industry

Karen H. Kaplan, Physics Today
If new sources of helium aren’t developed, the world’s supply of the gas will dwindle and prices will soar.

Drained budgets and postponed projects are widespread these days among the physics labs, manufacturers, and other businesses that depend on helium for their work, direct consequences of a worldwide shortage of the element, which ironically is one of the most abundant on Earth.

For the last 10 years, groups around the US, including the American Physical Society, have been predicting that a severe shortage of the gas-which has many more valuable applications than filling party balloons-would emerge early in the 21st century. Pointing to a 1996 federal law that mandates sale of the federal helium reserve by 2015, they’ve warned that once the reserve-which supplies some 40% of domestic needs and 35% of worldwide requirements-is sold off, it can never be replaced.

The prophecies are already coming true, but for a different reason. The supply crimp that arose last year is the result of production glitches around the world that gas industry experts say underscore the need to develop new helium sources. If supply is tight now, they say, it’s likely to be far more constricted once the reserve is depleted.

A byproduct of radioactive decay within Earth, helium is often a component of natural gas. Helium refiners extract natural gas from gas fields-in the US, the fields are mostly in Texas and Kansas-and cool it to below 90 K. At that point, everything except helium liquefies; the helium is distilled and compressed or further cooled to liquid form. In addition to the federal reserve, which is in a gas field near Amarillo, Texas, several sources worldwide supply helium: a handful of other US gas fields, and plants in other countries including Algeria, Qatar, Poland, and Russia.

The current shortage has several causes.

…The situation is likely to become even more dire in the near future. Kornbluth and Leslie Theiss, field office manager at the US Bureau of Land Management’s helium operations in Amarillo, say the worldwide demand for helium is growing, fueled at least in part by the growth of high-tech manufacturing in China, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea.

…Until other sources are developed, industry officials warn, the worldwide helium supply will continue to be squeezed. “We’re producing everything we can here but it just isn’t enough,” says Theiss.

(June 2007)
Pointed out by MOBJECTIVIST.

Has anyone done a Hubbert analysis on helium, the way we’ve done one on phosphorus? Looks like all the symptoms are there. -BA

Balloon sellers find helium in short supply

Keiko Morris, Newsday
Worldwide demand outpacing supply; production and delivery problems throw market off balance

The sleepless nights spent worrying about helium started about a month ago.

That’s when Leon Sorin — owner of Balloons by Sorin, balloon artist and vendor of these floating balls for events ranging from Columbia University festivities to bar mitzvahs — was told that he would get one or two tanks of helium instead of his usual weekly supply of 10.

“People are panicking and the balloon stores are limiting you to 10 balloons per person. And people who don’t even know me are calling for parties,” said Sorin, whose company is based in Glendale, Queens. “I would do it if I had the helium.”

Sorin, like his fellow balloon vendors, has been aware of a global helium shortage for about a year, but only in recent weeks have he and his colleagues begun to feel the pinch.
(10 September 2007)

TODers mull peak helium

Drumbeat discussion, The Oil Drum
Discussion about the science and implications of helium depletion.
(10 September 2007)