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Helium shortage looms

Qatar blockade cuts 30% of global supply and threatens price increases for scientific instrument users

by Marc S. Reisch
June 22, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 26

A large, round, helium liquefier surrounded by construction personnel
Credit: Air Liquide
This Air Liquide helium liquefier, shown under construction, is now idle in Qatar.

The blockade of Qatar that started on June 5 has shut down the source of 30% of the world’s helium, threatening another round of shortages and price increases for scientific instrument users.

Helium is used to cool nuclear magnetic resonance magnets and as a carrier gas for gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. The element is also used in medical imaging and electronics manufacturing, as well as to float dirigibles.

Supply limitations and maintenance projects in the U.S. and overseas led to a quadrupling of helium prices and even scientific instrument shutdowns between 2011 and 2013. Some helium users may be better positioned to cope this time because they installed recycling equipment during the most recent shortage.

Qatar halted helium production after the blockade severed helium’s main route out of the country: by truck through Saudi Arabia to the Port of Jebel Ali in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia and several other Middle Eastern countries initiated the blockade when they cut diplomatic ties over Qatar’s support of extremist Islamic groups and ties to Iran.

Shipments take about a month to arrive at their destination, points out Phil Kornbluth, a consultant who previously ran Matheson Tri-Gas’s helium operations.

That buffer of helium in transit, along with helium that left Qatar’s Port of Hamad on June 19, means customers may start to feel the blockade’s effects in July, Kornbluth says. Some helium distributors are beginning to allocate supplies, he says, but instrument users contacted by C&EN say they are not feeling any effects yet.

If the diplomatic situation isn’t resolved soon, helium distributors may set up regular shipments from Qatar’s Port of Hamad so the country can restart helium operations, perhaps in another month. All bets are off should Qatar’s adversaries block the ocean route, Kornbluth says.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which accounts for about 20% of global helium supply, has ramped up production at its Cliffside facility in Texas to help offset the loss of the Qatari helium.

However, technical problems capped additional supplies, notes Walter Nelson, vice president for helium at Air Products & Chemicals, which operates two helium refining plants tied to BLM operations. Thus, a continuation of the Qatar embargo will impact prices, Nelson says.



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