As a result of gradually diminishing helium production capacity, the lack of new helium capacity coming into the market and renewed growth in helium demand, the world is currently experiencing the third shortage of helium since 2006.

Helium Shortage 3.0 – Current status, impact and outlook

Helium is an important commodity for the cryogenics sector, and there is growing anxiety around its continued supply for a range of applications.

Against this backdrop, around 100 delegates from the cryogenics sector gathered today in Oxfordshire, UK, at the heart of the high-tech cluster of cryogenic industries and research centres, which depend vitally on having access to helium, for the latest in a series of Cryogenic Cluster Days.

Organised jointly by the British Cryogenics Council and the Science & Technologies Facilities Council (STFC), and held at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford, delegates heard from a range of speakers throughout the day, including helium specialists, exploration companies, technologists from research and industry, users and academia.

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Source: STFC

Area view of the Harwell Campus

John Vandore, Member of the Executive of the British Cryogenics Council, who coordinates the Cryogenic Cluster, officially opened the event welcoming delegates to Oxfordshire.

“It’s great to see everyone here today. I’m not sure if many of you know this, but the British Cryogenics Council (BCC) is actually 52 today! So Happy Birthday BCC.”

“We’re here today because many of our livelihoods depend on helium and we need to figure out what we can do with less helium and tune into where we could perhaps find some more.”

“We’ve got some brilliant speakers today who will shine a light on all of these issues.”

Session one

Richard Clarke, Director (Research) at Predict Ability, kicked off the event by setting the scene and providing an overview of the ‘big picture’ on helium.

He told delegates he predicated back in 2016 that there would be a helium shortage between 2018 and 2020.

At that time there was a surplus and surging high-tech demand in China that revealed supply weaknesses in Qatar (2017 blockade, Qatar 3 delay and pipeline problems) and late delivery in Eastern Siberia. 

“Now we have lost one of the key measures of helium market price, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the world’s biggest source of helium.”

“They kept a year to year record of helium pricing and we’ve lost that signal now. This is forcing people to look at their helium demand very critically and evaluate future needs of helium.”

He told delegates by mid-century we would be “looking to recover helium from air”.

Concluding, Clarke said, “What will be the supply position in 2030? Today, Qatar, despite its problems, is the ‘geo-centre’ of global helium supply. What happens next depends on developments in the East Siberian gas fields.” 

“The geo-centre is moving eastwards. In 1963, Cliffside in America was the centre, in 2015 it was Qatar and by 2030 the East Siberian gas fields will become the geo-centre of helium.” 

“That is one of the reasons we have a helium shortage today, that field is taking longer to develop than was expected. It is an ever-evolving market, we are not running out of helium.”

Next up, Chris Ballentine, from the University of Oxford, discussed helium exploration and some research the university has been undertaking with Helium One in Tanzania. 

He said the Tanzanian rift has all the key ingredients in the helium exploration tick-list, including:

  • Multiple helium-rich (up to 100%) micro sweeps
  • Rukwa section contains trapping structures
  • Soil gas survey shows helium excess to same level as the above known helium reserves
  • Macro sweep allows new evaluation of Rukwa helium resource by independent company. 

Pascale Dauguet, Air Liquide’s Scientific and Helium Gas Fields Market Manager for Europe, Americas, Middle East and Africa, wrapped up the first session of talks with a presentation about Air Liquide’s helium storage facility in Germany.

Located in a former salt mine, the storage site in Gronau-Epe ensures independent reliability of helium production sources, optimum transport lead-time and an all-round secure helium supply from Air Liquide.

Dauguet told delegates it can contain more than one year of Air Liquide’s helium sourcing and represents a first-of-its-kind technology thanks to an Air Liquide innovation.

Session two

After a short coffee break, Richard Down, Cryogenic Team Leader within the Experimental Operations Division at the STFC, continued the programme of presentations.

He gave a brief introduction on how cryogenics is used to support the science programme at the ISIS Neutron Source and how changes in the helium supply chain have driven the research centre’s usage to a point where it has had to consider and implement a helium recovery system.

“ISIS usage between 1993 and 2010, we were spending around £2.20-£4.65 a litre on helium. Things really started to change for us in 2011 with the selling of the BLN and some storms which interrupted our supply.”

“We were forced to go with a more secure supplier and within a few months our helium costs rocketed by more than 30%.”

“We didn’t want to be spending a million pounds on helium, so we started to recover helium.”

Down outlined the ISIS helium recovery system and some of the instruments they use to monitor and process the gas.

He also announced an exciting collaboration of helium management that the ISIS and the STFC are involved in with two European partners – Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (HZB) and Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL).

Down said the helium management collaboration would give total visibility of helium inventory using a modular system based on XBee network.

It would enable the ISIS to see all equipment in one place including:

  • Cryostats levels
  • Helium Dewar levels
  • Ring main pressure and temperature measurement
  • Weighing scale records of Dewar’s in and out
  • Database to collate and archive information

Recent progress in high temperature superconducting (HTS) magnet development at Tokamak Energy was discussed by the company’s Senior HTS Magnet Engineer, Greg Brittles.

He told delegates about tests conducted and the startling behaviours observed in a series of small-scale, conduction-cooled, HTS magnets. Topics included novel dynamic behaviour, quench behaviour and defect tolerance.

The final talk of the Cryogenic Cluster Day came from Neil Ritson, Director of Helium Resources Limited, who shared with delegates an exciting programme of subsurface research which he said could lead to the production of helium in Oxfordshire.

Ritson said HRL’s project lie in area with a large number of hi-tech cryogenic businesses dependent on helium in Oxfordshire.

“The UK has always imported all its helium, mostly from the US and Qatar. It has never produced a single molecule of helium.”

“Annual helium importation represents a £60m+ deficit on the UK’s balance of trade and this will increase sharply.”

“Security of supply will be a key consideration for researchers, business uses and also the NHS.”

“Increased recycling and the reduction of wastage are necessary but are not sufficient. New sources of helium are urgently needed.”

He didn’t give too much detail due to sensitivity reasons, but did say the project would drill three to five test wells to 180-200 meters. He also said there was no fracking involved.

Ritson shared with delegates the frustration that the research cannot be completed due to lack of understanding and commitment from the UK Government.

He sought support from delegates to help bring this situation to the attention of the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the government as a matter of significant national importance.

This afternoon, delegates will have the option to visit the Helium Recycling plant at the ISIS Neutron Source.

Why is the event held at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL)?

Operated by the STFC on the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) provides a thriving and collaborative environment for research in: particle physics, space science, materials, astronomy, photon science, computational and e-science, biology, biomedicine, and chemistry.

The UK has a particularly strong cryogenic community centred around Oxfordshire, emanating from the interaction of Oxford University and RAL and the cascade of surrounding enterprise over many years.

Oxfordshire’s position as the world’s leading manufacturer of MRI scanner magnets today can be traced back to pioneering work at RAL in superconducting magnets and Oxford Instruments – the first spinout company from the university.

A cryogenic infrastructure has built up around these centres, comprising everything from global corporations to sought-after, one-man specialists and every tier in between.

This community made it an obvious choice for a bid in the UK Government’s ‘National Cluster Mark Competition’ in 2010, and from there, the British ‘Cryogenics Cluster’ was formed, subsequently synchronising its membership with the British Cryogenics Council.

The first Cryogenic Cluster Day was held in 2010 to bring the cryogenic community together and to showcase its formidable strengths.

RAL provided a natural home for the first seven cluster days, but to make the event more accessible, Cluster Day Eight was held in 2017 at Science & Technology Facilities Council’s Daresbury Laboratory.

Cluster Day Nine returned to RAL, but Cluster Day Ten in 2020 is planned for Edinburgh.