Thanks to a convergence of several factors, many research labs around the world find themselves in yet another helium shortage, the fourth in the last 20 years. A critical material for scientific research, space travel, and medical testing, this elemental gas is a non-renewable resource and, unfortunately, in short supply. This shortage is caused by a handful of overlapping events that have been worsened by the current conflict in Ukraine and it seems unlikely that the shortage will get better for at least several more months. Under these circumstances, lab managers and industry leaders need to take steps to wisely use their current supply of helium.
Why we need helium
The two biggest needs for helium in the lab environment are as a cryogenic liquid for superconducting magnets, most notably in nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) instruments, and as a carrier gas for gas chromatography (GC) experiments. For the NMR instruments, cooling to liquid helium temperatures is required for the instrument to function. Warming of the magnet can lead to a quench event, which will render the instrument useless and can cause significant (and expensive) damage.
For GC experiments, the ease of use of helium and its inherent safety provides a high performing and relatively low-cost carrier gas (prior to the shortage). Since helium has been the carrier gas of choice for GC experiments for decades, most of the historical methods with long-lasting trend data have been produced using helium and most gas chromatographers were trained on instruments using helium.
The current state of helium
Referred to as shortage 4.0 by Phil Kornbluth, a helium industry consultant, the current drop in the supply of helium is not caused by one single factor, but rather by a mixture of several. The first major contributor is the unplanned shutdown at the Cliffside crude helium enrichment plant, which was caused by an unexpected leak that occurred mid-January. The facility, operated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), processes raw helium gas collected from the Bush Dome reservoir in Texas. The enrichment plant typically provides roughly 14.2 million cubic meters of helium per year and this temporary loss has affected many helium suppliers across the country.
Ordinarily, the temporary shut down of Cliffside wouldn’t be so detrimental as to lead to a global shortage, but it came at a time when other helium suppliers were suffering from disruptions to production. The new natural gas processing plant at Amur in Russia suffered from a fire in October 2021, as well as a later explosion in January. As a result, the Amur plant has been shut down indefinitely and therefore cannot provide the 49 million cubic meters of helium per year that was estimated.
Additionally, two of the three helium-producing liquefied natural gas plants in Qatar were shut down for scheduled maintenance in February. While these facilities should be back to full production shortly, if they aren’t already, their shutdown has added to the depletion of helium stockpiles.
Finally, while it hasn’t had an immediate impact on helium production yet, the conflict in Ukraine has resulted in a faster depletion of gas in the region. All of which has caused many of the major helium suppliers to declare a “Force Majeure,” and are being careful to ration their supply to customers.
What lab managers can do to address the shortage
There is little that lab managers can do about insufficient liquid helium for their NMR instruments. For facilities with multiple instruments, a wise course of action might be to take an instrument offline with a controlled quench. The benefit to doing this is the protection of a very valuable lab asset, but the downside is the absence of that tool in the capabilities of the lab.
For GC users, there are other options besides shutting down the instruments. Alternate carrier gases like hydrogen or nitrogen have been implemented with success. Previous helium shortages caused new methods to be developed that can address most concerns around GC separation and detection. Hydrogen has the benefit of producing even faster separations than helium and can increase the performance of many GC methods. The key concern of shifting to hydrogen is lab safety. Many of the safety risks can be mitigated using hydrogen generators, rather than cylinders of gas. The generators create the needed gas on demand, so no large volume of hydrogen is ever available to create a fire or explosion hazard. While the costs of hydrogen generators are an extra expense for the lab, their cost may be a good investment based on the rising costs of helium cylinders and the scarcity of sustained supply.
An additional consideration for GC users is the need to redevelop and potentially revalidate GC methods after the change over to hydrogen as a carrier gas. The time required to complete the implementation of these new methods must also be considered in the decision to switch away from helium as a carrier gas. Another potential issue is that historical data from helium as a carrier gas won’t match the retention times from experiments using hydrogen as a carrier gas. The impact on trend data and product quality testing must also be evaluated.
In the past, some industry and scientific communities have encouraged the recycling of helium to help alleviate the burden on the supply chain. Unfortunately, this isn’t always a feasible option for smaller labs who will likely have to stick to rationing as best they can until either production rises again to meet demand, or demand drops enough to account for the delays in supply.
Eventually, both the BLM facility and the operations in Qatar will resume production and start to replenish supplies. However, without the boost from Amur, it is likely that helium supply will still struggle to meet demand for a large part of 2022 and possibly into 2023. There is some good news on the horizon in the form of the cancellation of ExxonMobil’s planned maintenance at their Shute Creek plant, which is a facility that accounts for more than 20 percent of the global helium supply. While this development inspires cautious optimism, few experts expect the current shortage to end anytime soon. There is, fortunately, an expectation that the situation should gradually become less severe, barring any major changes. Regardless, it seems clear that the landscape around helium supply is going to be strained for the remainder of this year.