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A helium atom walks into a bar and the bartender says "we don't serve noble gases here." Helium doesn't react.

Helium shortage – has the balloon gone up?

Throughout 2014 an international helium shortage was causing major supply disruptions around the globe. Many customers in healthcare, pharmaceuticals, commercial diving, science, defence and the semiconductor industry were struggling to find reliable sources at any price. And despite the 2013 US Government’s Helium Stewardship Act, the market was unable to meet demand. In October 2014 Analox published this letter:

‘Helium is a diminishing natural resource. It has been widely publicised that there is a shortage of helium, a situation which is going to get worse over time. Once helium is released into the atmosphere it is gradually lost into space and can never be replaced.

As part of its environmental policy, Analox has reviewed the amount of helium used in our production facility and whether this use is strictly necessary. A number of areas where we can save helium have been highlighted:

  • We do a large number of pressure tests on diving-related systems in pressure vessels with significant unfilled volume, leading to helium waste. In future we will partially fill the pressure vessel with rubber bricks to save gas waste.
  • We calibrate all our normabaric CO2 sensors for the commercial diving industry using helium based gases, prior to shipment. Our customers immediately re-calibrate the sensors once installed. The CO2 sensors for helium are the same as for nitrogen, so from now on all our normabaric CO2 sensors will be calibrated on nitrogen based gases. The helium specific versions of the SDA CO2 range will be discontinued, but this will in no way affect the performance of the SDA CO2 monitors when used in helium environments.

Analox are hoping to save 250,000 litres of helium per annum with these initiatives.

Read the complete Helium shortage letter

A short history of helium shortages

Helium (He) has always suffered the vagaries of market forces and these recent shortages are nothing new. In 1925 the US Government created the National Helium Reserve in an attempt to guarantee supplies for both military and commercial airships. This was further reinforced by the associated 1927 Helium Control Act which banned exports of the gas. The United States was for a long time the world’s leading producer of helium.

Helium was first used in the 1920s after chemists in the US discovered how to extract it from natural gas. It soon found important applications in airships and barrage balloons as a non-flammable, lighter-than-air lifting gas. Its additional qualities as an odourless, colourless, inert, non-toxic, low-boiling-point gas later led to its widespread use in welding, chromatography, leak detection, cryogenics, aerostatics and deep-sea diving.

Despite helium’s abundance in the universe—it is in second place to hydrogen—it can only be economically produced by extracting it from natural gas in a process known as ‘fractional distillation’. Some US gas fields have been known to contain as much as 7% helium by volume. It may be theoretically possible to synthesize helium or obtain it from the atmosphere but these are not economically viable alternatives to gas extraction.

Helium is formed by natural processes which take billions of years to complete; it is created as a by-product of the radioactive decay of rocks in the earth’s crust. Helium is an element that cannot be created from anything else; it is a scarce, non-renewable, irreplaceable resource. Some specialised applications in cryogenics, plasma welding and laser technology have no workable substitute and currently could not function without helium.

At present, there is a reassuring (but perhaps temporary) over-supply of helium due to refinery expansion and Federal Helium Reserve output. However, according to www.heliumscarcity.com, this noble gas, ‘…could be depleted in one generation due to inattention to helium recycling and carelessness about the applications of helium…’. They also say that ‘Beyond 2016, questions over supply and availability could begin to resurface…’.

Author: Paul Smith, Technical Writer.

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Posted in Breathing air, Scuba Diving

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