Industry sources have indicated recently that the US National Helium Reserve is anticipated to deplete within the course of the next 3 years. This relates to a decision by the Department of the Interior to start selling crude helium in the fiscal year 2019. The Reserve was a strategic program designed to provide a steady supply of coolant for notable projects, for example in the aerospace industry.
The current state of the reserve was the result of a May 2013 extension of its lifespan through to 2021. This initiated a countdown for the reserve’s expiration, leading to the element’s 3rd shortage over the past 14 years. While the worldwide supply previously saw an increase with development of reserves in Qatar, the persistence blockade on the country has complicated distribution of this new supply.
At present, the only known means of obtaining helium are through uranium and thorium decay acquired from natural gas and oil drilling. Aside from the refining process, raw helium manufacturing remains out of reach. As natural gas drilling sources deplete, so do immediate helium supplies. Having a depleting resource such as this creates challenges for the manufacturing and operation of several high-value products. Helium is used as a coolant for MRIs, nuclear power plants, metal fabrication, and semiconductor production.
The growing shortage has been further exacerbated by poor industrial safety practices that have led to explosions and fires in recent years. Moreover, liquid helium faces its own risks of leakage after 30-45 days in transit. As helium demand increases due to the greater need for products requiring its application, such as electronics and healthcare, current resources are anticipated to be further stretched.
It would be difficult to find suitable alternatives for helium in healthcare, as there are few MRI coolant alternatives. In addition to MRIs, the healthcare industry would also face interruptions in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy employed in cellular research and in testing pharmaceutical applications.
Because semiconductor manufacturing employs magnet-intense processes that require helium-level cooling, there are few alternatives in the event of a shortage. For all other electronics manufacturing, however, alternative liquid coolants are viable, provided criteria such as acceptable physical and chemical properties, low freezing and high boiling points, no corrosive properties, and affordability are met.
Aqueous or oleous coolants, ranging from (semi)synthetic aqueous to straight or soluble oils, offer a wealth of alternatives in the event of a helium shortage, albeit one incomparable to those solutions offered by helium. Customers using helium in manufacturing processes are advised to assess what steps may be taken to mitigate the effects of a shortage.