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Noble gas shortages averted, for now

Higher prices and new sources made neon and helium more widely available

by Marc S. Reisch
December 14, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 49

Users of helium and neon still get indigestion from recalling recent shortages of the two noble gases. But new investments this year by producers are likely to help stave off a repeat of earlier gut-wrenching experiences.

In response to high helium prices, the industrial gases firm Linde said in May that it would construct a plant to extract helium from a gas field in South Africa. The facility is set to open in 2018.

A month later, start-up firm Helium One said it was raising $40 million to expand exploration of a newly discovered helium field in Tanzania that scientists say could contain seven times the amount of the noble gas currently consumed worldwide each year. Today, helium is recovered as a by-product of natural gas extraction, but high prices could justify making the Tanzania project the first to produce helium on purpose, the firm says.

Users also took steps to cut helium waste. In October, three scientific societies urged Congress to support academic researchers’ efforts to limit helium consumption.

High prices and shortages also spurred investments in neon, which both enables neon lighting and is crucial to a photolithographic technique that packs transistors on semiconductor chips for phones and computers.

In July, Linde again came to the rescue, saying it would spend $250 million to capture 40 million L of neon annually from its air separation plant in La Porte, Texas. Meanwhile, shortages eased somewhat because of conservation efforts.


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