Helium has two special abilities. It is extremely light, and it can get extremely cold without freezing.
Largely for these reasons, the element is needed to use or make all sorts of things: semiconductors, rocket fuel, computer hard drives, the Large Hadron Collider, magnets in MRI machines, airships, scuba tanks, arc welding, anything that needs to be super cold, and of course, balloons.
So when helium shortages hit in 2006 to 2007 and 2011 to 2013, the consequences rippled far beyond birthday parties. The Earth is not actually running out of helium, but imbalances in the market, especially around a U.S. government helium reserve, did cause those shortages. Thankfully, relief was on the way. New helium plants came on line in Qatar, and the country quickly went from producing a small sliver of the world’s helium to 25 percent of it in 2016.
Now, Qatar is at the center of a regional crisis that seems to be about many different things, none of them helium. Yet the helium supply chain is tangled up in it. Qatar usually sends its supply over land through Saudi Arabia to a large port in the United Arab Emirates, from which the helium goes out to Singapore and then factories and labs around the world. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have cut off this route as part of the dispute.
It got bad. Because its helium had nowhere to go, Qatar suspended helium production in early June. Production resumed around July 2, and helium will probably take a more complex and expensive route via a port in Oman, according to Phil Kornbluth, a helium industry consultant. Furthermore, it’ll take a few more weeks for helium production to get back to normal due to the logistics of getting specialized liquid helium canisters back to Qatar and slowly cooling them before they can be used again.
“The thing this really highlights,” says Kornbluth, “is that the helium supply chain, even though there’s ample supply when everything is running, is inflexible and fragile.” The challenges of handling liquid helium and the fact that it’s only made as byproduct of natural gas in a few places around the world all make helium a tricky product to source. Qatar is producing helium again, but the political crisis is not over. It’s been a wake-up call.
The industry has been trying to make the helium supply more reliable. That could mean severing the link between helium and natural-gas extraction. Helium makes up a minuscule amount of natural gas. While Qatar’s natural gas doesn’t exactly have high concentrations of helium (0.05 percent), the country produces so much natural gas that its has accumulated helium byproduct for a tidy second business. The U.S., the world’s top helium producer ahead of Qatar, extracts helium from natural-gas fields around the Texas panhandle.
Since helium is only a byproduct, it’s hard for other helium suppliers to step up when something like the Gulf crisis happens. Producing a little bit more helium requires producing a lot more natural gas—and energy companies aren’t going to do that for the sake of their secondary helium businesses.
That’s why the helium industry has gotten excited about the recent discovery of a giant helium deposit in Tanzania. This discovery has nothing to do with natural gas. Instead, the gas trapped underground is as high as 10 percent helium, with nitrogen accounting for the rest. A company called Helium One has formed to tap the deposit. “Because we’re pure helium, we could potentially act as a buffer to the world’s helium supply,” says Thomas Abraham-James, CEO of Helium One. If a political crisis deepened in the Middle East or ExxonMobil temporarily shut down its U.S. helium plant for maintenance, he says, then Helium One could step in.
Past helium shortages have also taught users to conserve helium. “The context is anxiety and instability in the market,” says Richard Clarke, a helium industry consultant.
Labs, for example, have started to recycle helium. The element likes to float off, but it is possible to recover via ventilation systems. Clarke notes that makers of MRI machines, which require liquid helium to make their magnets cold enough to superconduct, also recover helium when old machines are decommissioned. The element is too important to let go to waste.
The interruption of Qatar’s helium production is, in the big picture, just a small and unintended part of the current political crisis. Yet the supply chain of just one element touches so many industries—energy, medicine, electronics, rocketry—and the consequences can go far beyond the Gulf.