The era of vexing helium shortages is likely at an end. The Russian state-owned company Gazprom brought 20 million m3 of new helium capacity on-line earlier this month when it opened the first of three helium production lines at its Amur gas-processing plant in southeastern Russia. The firm also commissioned a related logistics center that will feed liquid helium into cryogenic containers for shipment around the world.
The facility boosts global supply of helium by about 11%, according to helium consultant Phil Kornbluth. When all three lines are up and running, Amur is expected to provide 60 million m3 of helium per year alongside methane, ethane, and other less-valuable products. Gazprom says Amur will reach full capacity in 2025.
The opening of the first Amur plant should mark the end of more than 15 years of volatility in the helium market, Kornbluth says. Price spikes, rationed delivery, and other disruptions have plagued users ranging from birthday clowns to high-field magnetic spectroscopists. “We’re going to look back on it and say this is what ended the shortage mentality—and ended the shortages,” Kornbluth says.
The helium from Amur joins 11.3 million m3 of new helium capacity opening this year in Qatar. Several smaller projects are also in the works or starting production, Kornbluth says.
Helium comes from underground deposits where it is found mixed with hydrocarbons, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. Until recently, helium production was only profitable as a sideline of natural gas extraction. But better separation technology such as membranes, along with higher prices, have created a business case for helium-focused projects, Kornbluth says.