Running Low on Gas: Technologies Affected by the Helium Shortage


Helium Shortage 4.0 began in July 2021 after a string of helium processing outages in both the United States and Russia shrank the available helium supply, effectively reversing past estimates that 2022 would be a year of growth for the helium market. Helium is an essential resource, and it has long been used in scientific research and medicine, with much of the supply in the US provided by the US Bureau of Land Management’s own processing plants. Helium is the lightest noble gas, which allows balloons and other objects to rise in air composed of denser nitrogen and oxygen. Helium’s inert nature also makes it preferable to use in balloons over the less dense but more flammable hydrogen. For the scientific community, however, helium is precious because of its low boiling point: liquid helium reaches temperatures nearing absolute zero, so it is the coolant of choice for inducing superconductivity in metals. Advanced technology such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and quantum computing would not exist without the use of liquid helium.

Helium is a crucial element in today’s society due to its unique properties. However, these properties are exactly why helium is so difficult to stockpile. Since helium is extremely light and unreactive, it is able to float out of the atmosphere into space and is not recaptured through an atmospheric reaction, making it the only completely nonrenewable element on Earth. Of course, helium still exists in massive amounts in outer space; it is the second most abundant element in the universe and is generated from the fusion of hydrogen in the cores of stars. Ironically, rocket launches also use large amounts of helium, and the cost of helium would surge exponentially if we require space travel to retrieve it.

The current helium shortage does not have a foreseeable end. The Amur Project, a natural gas processing plant in Russia, was set to open operations in 2022. However, a feed gas explosion has significantly delayed startup. Furthermore, it is unclear whether the helium supply would be distributed once the plant is operational, due to recent trade sanctions from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For now, it is important for institutions around the world to consider how helium supplies should be distributed or replaced. For example, MRI is a critical imaging technique that offers data for medical diagnoses across all fields. The prices of liquid helium required to operate these machines have already increased by almost 30% due to the shortage, and medical professionals worry that a continued shortage may prevent patients from receiving MRI scans and subsequent treatment. To combat this, researchers are now tasked with finding suitable systems that could reduce or recapture the liquid helium used: both the University of California- San Francisco and the University of California- Los Angeles have implemented systems that recover helium after it is evaporated during imaging. Thus, the helium shortage has forced developers of current imaging techniques to reconsider entire systems.

In the short term, the helium shortage will likely have minimal effects on everyday life. Retail stores may cut down on selling floating balloons and parade floats may be put on hold. These changes could reduce helium use by about 7%, but they do not address the majority of helium uses. It is paramount that engineers develop alternatives to helium, but it is also difficult to find another material with such unique thermal properties. More realistically, helium recapture and recycling techniques should be implemented across hospitals and research institutions.