Contracted Afrox helium customers have been enjoying prioritised supply without feeling the effect of the global helium shortage. In a shortage situation, preference is given to medical and higher grade laboratory requirements.

The company’s Marietha Strydom says local supply is underpinned by continuous communication between Afrox and its parent company The Linde Group’s global helium division, ensuring delivery optimisation.

Worldwide demand for helium has been steadily increasing to meet the requirements of both conventional applications and the latest new-frontier uses. Helium is used in gaseous form in welding and cutting, fibre optics, electronics, in aerospace applications, in leak-testing, deep-sea diving, welding and processes such as growing crystals to make silicon wafers, as well as for inflating party balloons and in liquid form for cooling superconductive magnets.

“In 2012 the industrial gases industry is facing one of the most prolonged shortages in the history of global helium supply,” says Strydom. “This is a temporary situation that makes it challenging for us to meet all our customers’ requirements. However Afrox is doing well to secure additional helium sources and we expect the situation to improve in the medium term.

“There are only 14 commercial sources of supply around the world. Helium from these sources is a component of natural gas and must be extracted by natural gas companies to provide crude helium for commercial helium suppliers such as Linde.  Every year there are planned and unplanned events that disrupt the supply from one source or another and this affects the balance of the entire global supply and demand scenario.”

It has been necessary to upgrade helium plants to keep up with the demand. Unfortunately, a number of sources that were supposed to come on stream a couple of years ago, did not materialise for technical or financial reasons, or relating to challenges with local legislation. These sources are still expected to come on stream, but with a few years’ delay. At the same time, some existing sources are not performing to expectation.

“Despite the inevitable supply disruptions, Linde is leading the field in mitigating the effects and, as part of this international group, Afrox continues to have access to the most reliable supply for local customers.”

“Linde purchases much of its helium in Qatar in the Middle East via the Qatar 1 Helium Project. When Qatar 2, the world’s largest source, comes on stream in 2013, Linde will purchase 30% of its output and, along with its other sources, Linde will become the leading commercial supplier of helium by 2015.”

“Afrox customers can also be assured of continued helium supply as a result of ongoing investments into the group’s global footprint, the addition of transfilling systems to supply more customers locally, a focus on loss reduction and through helium conservation.“

She adds that Linde recently created the new position of Global Sourcing Manager to focus exclusively on building helium capacity for the future via multiple projects and investments.  Linde continues to lead the industry with the most diverse source portfolio and access to more sources than any other competitor, to mitigate the effect of any single disruption.

“Linde has also switched Afrox’s helium supply from the USA to the European/Middle Eastern supply chain and this is proving very successful,” Strydom concludes.  “The shorter shipping route means far lower losses and therefore higher availability of product.  “

“Over the past 12 months we have not run out of Helium Baseline 5.0 gas and our availability of liquid helium has been equally good. By reducing our losses, we are also able to offer helium at a very competitive price. However, to assist us in maximising our stock levels, we urge our customers to return empty cylinders for filling as soon as possible.”