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Helium is again in short supply.

Helium is again in short supply

4 April 2022

The war in Ukraine isn’t much of a factor, yet.

Cliffside helium enrichment plant.
The federally operated Cliffside Helium Plant in Texas, which helps maintain the US helium supply, has been closed since January. Credit: Bureau of Land Management

For Eva Andrei, the cost of liquid helium has more than doubled in the last two years, from $930 for a 100-liter dewar to $2000 today. But that’s only part of the Rutgers University physicist’s helium woes. A shortage of the noble gas has meant she can operate only one or two of the four scanning tunneling microscopes in her lab, each of which requires 100 liters of liquid helium per week for experiments in quantum physics, superconductivity, and graphene, among other areas.

Margaret Eastman maintains four nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometers at Oklahoma State University. She was so alarmed that she might run out of liquid helium that she asked other, nearby researchers to help her condense helium gas, which she planned to obtain from commercial suppliers—only to learn that the suppliers had no gas available either.

Nancy Washton, a catalysis science group lead at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), maintains 28 instruments with superconducting magnets: 24 NMRs and four Fourier-transform infrared spectrometers. As of 25 March, she had deactivated two NMRs and scheduled another to be mothballed in May. The shutdowns have been forced by successive cuts to PNNL’s helium allocation from Messer, its supplier, from a preshortage average of 2400 liters per month to 940 liters in March. “That’s simply not enough to maintain our equipment,” Washton says. The choice was either to warm the magnets in an orderly fashion or to allow them to quench, with the possibility they would be permanently damaged. “We are now living on the banked liquid helium that the vendors had,” she says.

During the early stages of the pandemic, decreased helium demand for industrial and entertainment applications had led to a plentiful supply of the light gas. But now a combination of disruptions in helium production are being blamed for an abrupt about-face in the supply–demand balance in recent months. Phil Kornbluth, a helium industry consultant, has dubbed the current helium situation Shortage 4.0; supply deficits also occurred in 2006–7, 2011–13, and 2018–20.

Confluence of events

A primary contributor to the latest shortage was a leak that caused an unplanned mid-January shutdown at the Cliffside crude helium enrichment plant, which is operated by the Bureau of Land Management to process raw helium gas from the Bush Dome reservoir in Texas. The closure, which followed a four-month outage of the plant last year, has removed a source that usually provides around 14.2 million cubic meters per year from the reservoir, says Kornbluth. That’s about half the volume that would normally flow through the 724-kilometer pipeline that several major helium suppliers tap into to further purify the gas for distribution. A roughly equivalent volume of helium enters the pipeline from the Hugoton natural gas field located beneath Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

On its own, the Cliffside loss probably wouldn’t have been so disruptive had a new natural gas processing plant at Amur in the Russian Far East continued to operate after its September 2021 opening. But a fire in October, followed by an explosion in January, shut down that facility indefinitely. Industry observers are doubtful of promises from Gazprom, the Amur owner, to restore operations in the third quarter of this year. “The bottom line is that the two [plants] at Amur that could have produced as much as 1.4 [billion cubic feet] per year (49 million cubic meters) will be zero,” says Kornbluth. “That’s the difference between having a plentiful helium supply in the world and a deficit.”

500 MHz NMR system.
This 500 MHz NMR system at Washington University in St Louis requires liquid helium. Credit: Courtney Reichhardt, WUSTL

The war in Ukraine casts further doubt on long-term Russian helium availability. Helium hasn’t been sanctioned by the US so far, and there is substantial demand for the gas in China, which hasn’t imposed sanctions on Moscow. But helium expertise and equipment supplied to Russia from the West could be hindered or cut off due to wartime hostilities, Kornbluth says.

The current helium shortage was exacerbated by the closure for scheduled maintenance earlier this year of two of Qatar’s three helium-producing liquefied natural gas plants. (Helium occurs in small amounts in natural gas and is separated out during gas liquefaction.) Those facilities should be back to full production this month, says Kornbluth. Most recently, in response to a shortage of gas resulting from the war in Ukraine, one of two Algerian liquefied natural gas plants was shut down and its gas feedstock was routed instead to Europe through an undersea pipeline.

Of the five major helium suppliers—Air Products and Chemicals, Air Liquide, Linde, Matheson, and Messer—all but Air Products have declared force majeure and are now rationing their customers to 45–60% of their contracted amounts, Kornbluth says. Noncontractual users who buy helium through purchase orders (POs) are having the hardest time acquiring it; spot prices have doubled in the last several months, he says.

Eastman’s supplier is promising to deliver 920 liters annually, 65% of what she had been receiving. “You can’t go on like that,” she says. “NMR magnets need what they need. You can push it and not fill them to full, but if you do that over again, next time the level will get lower than you need. There is a minimum that a magnet can withstand without quenching.”

Andrei says she’s had to buy on the spot market after an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate a contract with a supplier last year. “They told us we have to sign a commitment not to recycle,” she says. “We have to write a PO for every order of 100 liters. It takes a week or more to deliver, and you never know if it will arrive. So then you may have to warm up your experiment and ruin your sample.”

Recycling helps

As is always the case with shortages, some users are more fortunate than others. William Halperin, a physicist at Northwestern University, says his allocation from Messer is 45% of what he normally buys. But Halperin also runs a central helium recovery and liquefaction system at the university that recovers about 70% of the helium used there. That’s allowed a buildup of inventory to around 5000 liters of liquid helium, enough to satisfy needs for now.

As a big user who pays a premium for helium, Sophia Hayes, a chemist at Washington University in St Louis, says she is fortunate to receive 75% of her preshortage deliveries. The university recently installed a recovery and liquefaction facility to collect the boiloff from the half-dozen NMRs in her lab. But leaks in the system have made the recovery rate poor so far.

For the near term, Washton says, PNNL will be able to accommodate all its researchers on the instruments that remain. “It will take juggling and people will have to be flexible, and I joke that somebody will have to come in at 11 on a Saturday night.” Further cuts to PNNL’s allocation would change that. “We’re assessing different scenarios—how we would accommodate that in taking instruments down and our ability to move work to others.”

Helium liquefier.
A new liquefier at Washington University in St Louis recycles helium that cycles through NMR spectrometers. Credit: Courtney Reichhardt, WUSTL

Washton notes that the biggest helium losses occur in so-called flashes when the magnets are refilled. That’s required every one to six months, depending on the magnet. PNNL doesn’t currently have recovery systems, but recapture and liquefaction facilities are planned for the lab’s new $90 million energy sciences center, where many of the lab’s NMRs and other cryogenic instruments are to be relocated.

Eastman says the Oklahoma State administration has agreed to purchase a liquefier capable of collecting from multiple instruments. “We argued to them that the cost of the equipment that could be ruined if a magnet quenches is large compared to the cost of a recovery system,” she says. “And the helium situation is so uncertain. It’s just the smart thing to do.” Liquefiers can cost anywhere from $150 000 to $350 000, she says. The less expensive ones will handle everyday boiloff but not the flash.

No one knows when the shortage will end. A restart of the Cliffside plant, probably under private-sector management, could come as early as May, says Kornbluth. All the helium stored in the Bush Dome formation in Texas—both the 57 million cubic meters left in the federal reserve and a similar quantity of privately owned helium—must flow through Cliffside. The shortage should begin to ease once that spigot is opened and Qatar gets its production back up to full speed, he predicts.

A long-delayed auction of the federal government’s remaining helium reserve assets is scheduled to occur in September. After that, the private owner—likely one of the majors—will be free to determine how to sell the helium. A bill introduced in the US House of Representatives that would require the new owner to continue supplying federally funded researchers from the reserve is unlikely to advance without being attached to more widely supported or must-pass legislation. The American Physical Society and the American Chemical Society are looking for opportunities to do that, says Mark Elsesser, APS’s director of government affairs.

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