Is there a helium shortage?

Just a few short years ago there was an abundance of helium. The pandemic saw a decrease in demand for industrial and entertainment applications, that in turn, saw increase supply. Since then, there have been a series of events that have led to a decrease in supply that is leading towards higher prices and less product.

Let’s look at where helium comes from. Helium is an elemental gas that is abundant in space. That’s because it is a product of the fusion reaction inside stars, such as the sun. Here on Earth, it is an offshoot of radioactive elements decaying and forming other elements. Techy, right?

 

Interestingly, helium gets mixed into natural gas and is one of the many byproducts of oil & gas drilling. This is typically where the helium for blowing up balloons and other industrial processes such as arc welding and MRIs comes from. Less drilling, less helium.

 

The U.S. has a large National Helium Reserve in Texas. The Cliffside plant had a leak that resulted in an unplanned shutdown. This was preceded by a 4-month unplanned shutdown that further exacerbated the situation.

 

There are other places in the world - such as Russia and Qatar – that produce helium. The war in the Ukraine has hampered the long-term Russian helium availability, along with a scheduled shutdown of 2 of the 3 Qatar manufacturing facilities has added to the situation.

 

Helium is used for much more than blowing up balloons. There are several medical uses such as MRI magnets and respiratory treatments for lung deficiencies. High speed internet & cable TV along with mobile phone and computer chips including computer hard drives.

 

The lack of supply has led to product rationing and significant price increases. Product manufacturers have seen their supplies cut to 45-60% of their contractual amounts.

 

In the end – yes, there is a product shortage that should be rectified. How long it will take remains to be seen.

 

Related articles: Physics Today, “Helium is again in short supply,” by David Kramer and Howstuffworks, “How is Helium Made?”, by Patrick J. Kiger.