Scientists Just Narrowly Avoided a Helium Crisis

No, the planet isn't running out of helium. But research institutions were.

Warren Rohner / Flickr

A massive untapped helium reserve has been discovered in Tanzania, thanks to a better exploratory technique pioneered by researchers in the United Kingdom. The news, announced at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Japan, was greeted with enthusiasm and relief by the scientists and professionals who rely on the gas and have struggled to find it in recent years. The problem with helium is that a finite amount of it exists and it is irreplaceable; once it’s in the atmosphere, it literally gets lost in space.

The reserve has been estimated at 54 billion cubic feet. At a market price of $200 per thousand cubic feet, that’s a potential value of $10.8 billion — although, the question of a market price for helium is a tricky one, and the costs for extracting, refining, and storage are quite high.

Helium is not just for party balloons and funny voices. The gas becomes a liquid within a few degrees of absolute zero and therefore is the only chemical that can be used for cooling in superconductors for MRI machines, nuclear reactors, and other applications. It’s also used in weather balloons and other flying structures. Hydrogen may work as a lighter-than-air gas, but it has the unfortunate side effect of being explosively flammable. Helium has the competitive edge.

All MRI machines use helium for supercooling.

Lawrence Berkeley Nat'l Lab / Roy Kaltschmidt

For the past decade or so, the world helium market has been in disarray, resulting in much hand-wringing about the planet’s supply running out. The problem, however, was never really tapping the last drop of the barrel, but laws and politics that interfered with helium markets.

The United States recognized the value of helium a century ago, and in 1925 ordered a federal stockpile to ensure supply for military and commercial airships. Although helium consumers were happy to have access to a stable supply at a low price, over time the system began to run into trouble. The feds weren’t selling enough helium to pay for the industrial extraction of the gas and had amassed $1.4 billion in debt.

In 1996 the U.S. government passed a bill that would see helium reserves sold off beginning in 2005, and exiting the game completely by 2015. However, the selling price was still set artificially low, which led to a flooding of the market, and a disincentive for industry to explore for new helium reserves. By 2013 helium consumers fretted that shutting down the federal reserve by 2015 would create chaos in the market, and a new bill was passed to continue operations to 2021.

However, the new law dictated that U.S. helium start being sold at auction, so prices would reflect the market rate. This created a new problem: prices had been set artificially low for so long that demand outpaced supply, and prices therefore spiked dramatically. Scientists and medical institutions had to shut down important research because they could no longer afford the helium they required.

The news of the Tanzanian helium find is a signal that the market has begun to self-correct. The researchers are refining the technique for finding new helium deposits, which largely had been found in the past by accident, when looking for natural gas. The scientists have discovered that helium is best found in a sweet spot that is not too far, but not too close, to volcanic activity, and where the geological formations underground allow for pockets of storage. Industry clearly now sees the potential for profits in helium, and is making investments in research and exploration. And the more people out there looking for helium, the greater the world’s supply will be, forcing a fall in prices.

This news could be good or bad for science, depending on your perspective. An open market is the most efficient way to ensure helium consumers will always be able to find a supply, so long as they are willing to pay the price. But prices in an open market can fluctuate wildly, and scientists will have to adjust to a world where research costs are uncertain. Some researchers have argued that the U.S. government should continue to maintain a reserve to ensure a fixed-cost supply of helium for scientific supercooling applications, which represent a small fraction of the global market.

This probably won’t happen, since it would likely require yet another act of Congress. But if efforts to innovate in the area of helium exploration and production continue, prices may be forced down by competition, anyhow.