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Beyond the Helium conundrum

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  • Physics
  • Political Science


Helium plays a central role in superconductivity. Despite breakthroughs in high-temperature superconducting materials, helium remains the coolant of choice. Against this there is concern about helium shortages. Global geological helium reserves are estimated to be approximately 8 million tons and are mainly in the U.S., Qatar, Algeria, and Russia. Annual helium production from natural gas runs at approximately 30 000 tons and is distributed across a few players, both public and private: the U.S. government, Air Liquide, Air Products, Linde Group, Matheson, Messer, and Praxair. Currently, the natural gas industry focuses insufficiently on the helium that remains blended throughout the gas supply chain until it is “vented” upon combustion. This constrains new supply development. These factors combine to create waves ofmarket anxiety. Consideration of demand reveals a diversity of government, public, and private buyers each of whom perceives their needs, and how much they are willing to pay, differently. For more than 100 years, researchers in low-temperature physics and especially superconductivity have been dependent on liquid helium supply. Currently the cryogenics and superconductivity users consume∼29% of the global helium supply and 3/4 of that is taken by the magnetic resonance imaging/nuclear magnetic resonance market. These users are already responding to helium price increases by developing liquid cryogen-free technologies to gain independence from the helium market. The purpose of this article is to explore options facing the global helium industry and helium users in an attempt to answer the question: what is the future of helium and how would that influence the cryogenic and superconductivity market? We consider the future options for current users such as: discontinuing helium-related activities; continuing to pay higher helium prices; running expensive onsite storage/reliquefaction helium systems; deploying costly cryogen-free low-temperature installation; influencing policy on the global industry extracting and distributing helium from natural gas or developing new, disruptive technologies that may reduce helium demand.

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