When more than 100 delegates from 16 countries gathered in London for the first ever Global Helium Summit, the trends, technologies and dynamics of the helium supply chain were in focus like never before.

Hosted by gasworld Conferences, the summit was the first event of its kind and provided a platform for discussion and knowledge exchange about one of the hottest topics in the scientific community.

A global attendance from the gases and equipment industry, end-users, consultants and researchers, and the scientific sector alike underlined the scale of the challenges faced in the helium business. A veritable who’s-who of science, cryogenics, technology and end-users included CERN, Oxford Instruments, STFC, Siemens Magnet Technology, Baker Hughes, ExxonMobil, RASGAS and Shell International Petroleum Co. Ltd.

This was in addition to an industrial gas and equipment audience that included Air Liquide, The Linde Group, Air Products, Praxair Inc., MATHESON, Messer Group, Westfalen AG, Iwatani Corporation, SOL S.p.A, Cryofab Inc., and M1 Engineering. Further still, an emerging major player in the global helium business came in force to the event with several delegates - Gazprom. All of whom had gathered at a crucial time in the global helium market. While the strong demand for helium has remained steady, a number of shortcomings in supply have led to worldwide shortages, across a wide range of end-user sectors. Against this backdrop, fears have intensified concerning the future fate of the BLM-operated US Federal Helium Reserve in Texas, as the clock ticks on a plan for future governance.

These dynamics, as well as ongoing questions about the future supply chain through to 2020, all made up a both pressing and progressive agenda at the summit - an agenda that began with Air Products’ Director of Helium Sourcing and Supply Chain, Walter L. Nelson. As recently as May, Nelson was speaking at a US Senate Hearing to discuss the proposed Helium Stewardship Act of 2013. Legislation to complete the privatisation of the Federal Government’s helium stockpile is an important and serious matter, as Nelson reflected at the summit.

“I’d like to start by thanking John Raquet and the gasworld team for organising this Helium Summit - without question 2013 is set to be one of the most dynamic and industry changing years, with three new helium sources expected to come on-line along with a determination of the future for the US BLM reservoir. 2013 will certainly be an interesting chapter in the helium history book,” he opened.

“The global demand for helium is currently limited today by supply. The helium industry is effectively ‘sold-out’ and most helium suppliers have been, or are currently under some type of product allocation…Global helium historical demand growth rates have been 3-4% per year, led most recently by Asia at 6-10% annually. Future global growth rates are expected to be within similar ranges between 3-5%,” Nelson continued.

“More than 75% of the helium produced today comes from natural gas production in the US. Approximately 130 million cubic meters of helium are produced in the US each year, of which about 60% is the by-product of private natural gas production from the Hugoton and Riley Ridge fields and 40% is sourced from the US BLM helium reservoir in Amarillo, Texas.”

“This recent history of supply problems proves one thing: if the US Government doesn’t take legislative action soon to allow for continued operation of the US BLM system, the current helium shortages will child’s play compared to the dire situation that helium users will face.”

Nelson went on to explain the BLM and Congressional actions, including his own testimony to Congress and view on the matter, while also discussing helium conservation and recycling. Nelson was followed to the stage by Nick Haines, Head of Global Helium Source Development at Linde Global Helium. Haines also discussed US helium and Government status and described the regulatory history of the US Federal Helium Reserve from the 1920s through the 1960s and to toward present day, including the Helium Privitisation Act (HPA) of 1996.

Haines compared the two proposed structures or drafts for future regulation of the US Federal Helium Reserve and offered, “Overall, our view is that the House Bill could be quite disruptive to the industry; the Senate Bill, with some revisions, could be workable.”

Air Liquide’s Gerard Tan, Director of the Department for Helium and Rare Gases, moved the spotlight to another of the world’s major helium sources - and an important future source - as he discussed Qatar as the next step for helium stability.

Tan explained, “Qatar has had one of the largest helium supply since 2005…In 2010 Air Liquide announced that it had been awarded a second contract by RASGAS for the large turnkey helium plant construction to be installed at Ras Laffan; this new unit will be the largest in the world.”

“The combined production of the two sites is expected to reach 58 million cubic metres per year, making Qatar one of the largest producers of helium in the world. That could be around 25% of the production in the world. Qatar will continue to be the second-largest producer of helium in the world, after the US.”

“With the new capacity coming on-stream in Qatar, we should see an end to this current level of shortage in the global market. Nevertheless, we should not rest on our laurels. A clear gap will come in 2020 when the reserves (in the US) are fully depleted. This means all stakeholders must fully focus on finding new reserves and resources for helium.”

Application growth

When the agenda resumed after a short interval, first to the stage was Global Gases’ Phil Kornbluth, a veteran of the helium business and a regular commentator on the industry. He gave a simple history of the global helium market and sourcing developments through the decades, as well as his own take on both the regulatory events affecting the US BLM system and the emergence of new sources around the world. Kornbluth also pondered whether another new end-user application might emerge to rival magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in terms of helium consumption.

Cryo Diffusion’s Martin Woodhouse then took to the summit stage to address helium dewars and transport vessels, and designs optimised for outstanding performance. A lively Q&A session followed, which then led to the lunch break. In the afternoon, the focus was geared more toward applications and the future, with Siemens’ Dr. M’hamed Lakrimi describing the growth of the MRI business, the installed MRI base globally, emerging healthcare systems and developments in magnet technologies - a major consumer of supercool liquid helium and the largest end-user market for helium.

Gazprom Marketing & Trading’s Didier Lebout followed, giving a brief exploration of the company’s activities and its gas network, before turning to the East Siberian Gas Programme - essentially a resource that could shift the whole dynamics of the global helium supply chain.

Richard Clarke, of 4He Solutions, offered a new take on the helium supply challenges, as he discussed unconventional helium and the what this method of production could offer the supply chain in the next decade, and beyond.

Touching on the air separation process at the heart of the gases industry, he encouraged, “The gases industry is advanced in separating and producing molecules from air. Maybe a percent or two of world helium in the decades to come could come from air separation.” Clarke also explored venting and how much helium is currently lost to the atmosphere.

The Airship Association’s Peter Ward concluded the day’s presentations, alluding to the new generation of airships that might just prove to be the next big consumer of helium, in much the same way as MRI emerged and grew in the last 30 years.

Spiritus Group’s John Raquet, also Publisher at gasworld, closed the event after a brief debate and reflected, “Supply is going to change; what we have found today is that the supply side is going to change quite dramatically over the next six months alone. There will be more change going forward in the supply chain.”

“A take-away from this, is that actually there’s optimism, there’s growth that is going to occur. No-one has mentioned a decline here today; there is growth to be expected in this business. And we have heard some valid points about the potential future unconventional resources too.”