Is the Helium Shortage Just an Issue of the Past?

Image of helium party balloons, which rely on reliable helium gas supply.
Editoral Staff | September 14, 2017

Welding, healthcare, manufacturing, retail, real estate, automotive—what do all of these industries have in common? The answer is helium, and not always being able to get access to it. Nearly three years ago there was a severe helium shortage in the amount of helium available, caused in part by the growth in the industries that depend so much on the gas.

As stores of this non-renewable gas have been stabilized, a recent article published in The Atlantic reminds us that it is the growth imbalance in the market that caused the shortages in the first place. As we see continued growth among these industries, is another shortage imminent?

What is the current state of the helium industry?

According to GasWorld.com, the world demand for helium is roughly six billion cubic feet each year with the majority of the gas going to the healthcare, energy, defense and retail balloon industries. Over the past few years, the healthcare industry has been the largest consumer of helium, and, according to market research, will remain the largest as the industry continues to grow.

Helium production comes largely as a byproduct of natural gas, with the largest production being in the U.S., followed closely by Qatar. The recent embargo of Qatar by neighboring countries, which lead to a temporary shutdown of two of their helium plants, brought to light the vulnerability of the helium industry. Suppliers were quick to set up new supply chains from Qatar, allowing production to restart, but the incident highlights the need for diversified global supply. New sources in Russia, South Africa and the U.S. will help in the future. One helium supplier is currently filling a cavern in Germany with pure helium as a protection against future supply disruptions.

Make the most of your helium supply

While stores of helium are currently stable, it doesn’t mean that the gas isn’t worth conserving. It is important to make sure you are utilizing your supply as efficiently as possible. Here are some tips to make sure your helium supply is living up to its full potential:

  • Check your system for leaks
  • Make sure your valves are closed
  • Implement recapturing systems in research labs to recycle helium instead of letting it escape during experiments
  • For those in the retail balloon business, make sure your cylinder regulators are shut off between fillings and not left in the open position

Preparing for the future

Gas suppliers around the world are innovating new helium storage techniques, such as reserve mines, to ensure protection for the future and to help prevent another helium shortage. This past July, Air Liquide opened a large helium storage facility near Dusseldorf, Germany. The first of its kind, the storage facility houses pure helium more than 4,000 feet below ground in a salt reservoir.

Bill Baker, Vice President of Food, Beverage and Retail Markets at Airgas, an Air Liquide company, recommends customers ask their suppliers where they source their helium. He says, “Their best way to prepare is to ensure their helium supplier has reliable supply and access to a broad network of helium.”

Helium is a finite resource, with high refinement costs and can often be located in remote or volatile geographies. It is imperative to be conscientious about helium consumption and to recognize the potential for disruptions in your supply chain. Make sure wherever you go to obtain helium has a diverse supply chain to meet the ever-changing needs of your business—now, and in the future.

Learn more about specific gases, including helium, here. To learn more about Air Liquide’s helium storage facility, click here to be linked to the full press release, “World premiere: Air Liquide operates the first pure helium storage facility.”

 

 

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CONTRIBUTORS:

Bill Baker is the Vice President of Food, Beverage and Retail Markets at Airgas. With over 30 years working in these markets, Bill has a deep understanding of relevant gas applications, emerging trends and the technologies his customers need to be successful.