Outside, tourists strolled along the chilly boardwalk and the Atlantic Ocean roiled away with springtime fervor, but nestled into the Bally’s hotel/casino, the Gases and Welding Distributors Association (GAWDA) was getting to the heart of its Atlantic City regional meeting.
The night before had brought dinner and drinks in a bar overlooking the beach and water, networking and a reconvening of faces familiar and new. It was a 7:30 start the next morning, breakfast and the all-too-essential coffee served for those attending a pre-golf speaker session.
That session would be highlighted by Phil Kornbluth of Kornbluth Helium Consulting, who discussed the latest developments in the Helium market after several turbulent years of shortage and subsequent oversupply – perhaps giving a preview of the comments he’ll make as a speaker at gasworld’s Helium Summit 2.0 in September, also to be held in New Jersey.
Kornbluth’s history in managing Helium for BOC/Linde and MATHESON, in addition to contributing to gasworld and CryoGas International magazines, and founding Kornbluth Helium Consulting, was quickly recounted, and soon, discussion was underway of the severe shortage the Helium market faced between 2011 and 2013.
Among the primary effects this undersupply had, according to Kornbluth, was that it lowered overall market demand. Along with the decline of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Helium system and six plants losing their capacity, and ExxonMobil outages, prices doubled, and that naturally cut into how much Helium customers wanted to buy.
Following the Qatar 2 source coming onstream, 2014 and 2015 brought a period of significant oversupply, a quick turnaround from the shortage. Prices fell 15 – 20 percent in order to stimulate demand, but growth in that area remained sluggish. Buyers were still reeling from the prior shortage and slower to react than the supply itself.
This has led, Kornbluth said, to 2016, in which the Helium market has begun to stabilize. Kornbluth highlighted major gas companies holding back supply in an attempt to rebalance the market, turning three BLM plants altogether while slowing down production at more, and reinjecting bulk liquid Helium into the BLM pipeline to avoid missing take-or-pay obligations.
What the future holds
Qatar 2 has a 20 percent outage in March, and ExxonMobil has planned a shutdown for July and August, but Kornbluth still did not predict a return to shortages anytime soon – instead oversupply was predicted to last until 2020. Even if a given source falls short, he said, the BLM system will still be there to pick up that slack in the near term.
Plus, Air Products is set to bring Qatar 3 online in 2018, which will result in even more production alongside Qatar 2 and the company’s operation in Doe Canyon, Colorado, which was launched last year. And with GE – probably the biggest single user of Helium in the world – recycling the gas, that has contributed significantly to the residual drop in demand.
Kornbluth did highlight potential for growth in several new applications however. Helium airships, such as the 10 which Lockheed Martin’s Hybrid Enterprises sold to UK-based Straightline Aviation for $480 million at the end of March, represent a potential major shift in how shipping happens over land and sea, not to mention tourism markets.
In addition, Kornbluth noted Google’s Project Loon, attempting to use Helium weather balloons to hold routers in an attempt to bring the internet to the entire planet. These could counteract some of the decline of Helium use in MRI machines, the new models of which have been designed to use less of the gas since following the shortage the cost had gotten so high.
Look for Kornbluth’s latest update at the gasworld Helium Summit 2.0 in Somerset, New Jersey, on Sept. 12-13. More information here.