Helium supplies, already dicey, got worse this past week when production shut down in Arzew, Algeria. The curtailment joins ongoing disruptions in supplies from Russia and the US Federal Helium Reserve as well as planned maintenance at facilities in Qatar. Helium users in several locations say they are struggling to get the gas they need to keep their scientific instruments running.
“The shortage is scaring most NMR spectroscopists,” says Martha Morton, the director of research instrumentation at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Nuclear magnetic resonance instruments and related tools use liquid helium to cool superconducting magnets.
Morton says her price per liter just rose more than 20%. Smaller universities and private labs may have to shut their instruments down, she says, a process that is expensive and difficult to do without damaging the instrument. Some researchers active in an email-based NMR community are even considering letting their helium run dry, which causes the magnet to abruptly lose conductivity in a destructive process called a quench.
Larry Fertel, who runs the NMR instrument at IsleChem, a contract research and manufacturing firm in New York State, says his helium supplier notified him last week that it will only be able to supply half the normal amount of liquid helium at the next delivery—not enough to safely refill the instrument, Fertel says. Cylinders of helium are also harder than normal to find on the spot market. Fertel says he’s spoken to a national-scale gas firm that may be able to supply IsleChem as part of a long-term supply contract.
The helium shutdown in Arzew is a result of high natural gas demand in Europe, due in large part to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Helium is found alongside natural gas in conventional wells. Algeria normally compresses natural gas into liquid form at Arzew for global transport by ship. During that process, it’s economical to extract helium because it liquefies at much higher pressures and lower temperatures than natural gas, explains industrial gas consultant Jon Raquet.
But now, much of Algeria’s natural gas is being sent to Spain via pipeline, making separation impractical. The industrial and rare-gas advisory firm Edelgas Group estimates that liquefied natural gas production in key regions is down 30% from January, leading to a 10% drop in global helium supply.