Selling off the US national reserve of helium, as Congress mandated in 1996, “has adversely affected critical users of helium and is not in the best interest of the U.S. taxpayers or the country,” according to a report released in late January by the National Research Council (NRC).

The report recommends that Congress reconsider selling off the helium reserve, that the price of helium —currently set by a formula—be opened to the market, and that a standing committee be formed to “regularly assess whether national needs are being appropriately met.” It also advises that better data about helium sources be collected and that small-scale researchers be protected from “the instabilities [in cost and availability] recently characterizing the helium market” by including the researchers in an existing program that gives priority to and lower prices for government users.

Helium accumulates in natural gas by radioactive decay of heavy elements in Earth’s crust. It is a “natural resource which is not replaceable,” says William Halperin, who runs a cryogenic facility at Northwestern University and was a reviewer for the report. “It can remain trapped in the Earth for many millions of years, but when released, it will rise through, and escape from, our atmosphere and be gone forever.” Extracting the small fraction of helium in air is not commercially viable.

The helium reserve, a geological formation near Amarillo, Texas, currently holds an estimated 18 billion cubic feet of helium gas, the bulk of it federally owned, says Leslie Theiss, the local field manager for the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees the reserve. The 1996 law stipulates that the federally owned portion of the US stockpile of helium be offered for sale by 2015, and it sets the price to repay the government about $1.3 billion for its storage and stewardship of the gas.

The US supplies about 90% of the world demand for helium. But the NRC report warns that if the US continues to sell off the reserve, “within the next ten to fifteen years the United States will become a net importer of helium” whose principal foreign sources will be in the Middle East and Russia.

Demand for helium has changed dramatically in the past 10 years, says Tim Spisak, BLM deputy assistant director for minerals and realty management. Most notably, its use for magnetic resonance imaging is way up. Research uses include biological studies with super-conducting quantum interference devices, low-temperature physics, quantum computing, high-field magnets, and cooling magnets for high-energy accelerators. The Department of Defense and NASA use helium for rockets and balloons. Among the industrial applications are welding and providing clean environments for producing semiconductor components and optical fibers.

Scientific researchers use only about 2% of the total helium consumed each year, according to the report. But they were especially hard hit when helium prices rose a few years ago (see Physics Today, June 2007, page 31.) “Our cryogenic facilities use about 40 000 liquid liters a year,” says Halperin. Fermilab reports that in fiscal year 2009, it used 400 000 liters of helium for the Tevatron accelerator.

For individual researchers, “paying for helium can take up half a grant,” says Moses Chan, a physicist at the Pennsylvania State University who served on the committee that produced the NRC report. “Although we are a small part of the economy of helium, in the long run it’s a very important part of strategic uses. For example, you don’t use a cell phone at liquid-helium temperatures, but the physical principle comes from research at low temperatures.”

The report discusses alternatives to helium—using argon for welding and diluting helium with other gases in party balloons, for example—and recommends that agencies “make funds available for full-scale liquefier systems to recycle helium,” says Chan. “Economically, we are in a funny situation. The only way we can encourage industry, and maybe the government, to use less and to recycle helium is for the price to go up. But that will squeeze researchers even more.” The committee was not asked, Chan adds, “but the consensus was that it is not wise to sell off the national strategic helium reserve.”

The BLM can change its regulations to include small-scale researchers in the priority program for larger government users, Spisak says. As for the other recommendations, he adds, “Congress will have to get involved. This report will start up the dialog.”

Rough distribution of helium applications

Rough distribution of helium applications

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