Helium – A nuclear future


Over the past year, helium has been arguably the most publicised single industrial gas. The furore was catalysed in August 2010 when the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) revised its methodology for calculating the price of crude helium for open market sales, and in doing so incited a global 15.8% price hike of the inert but undoubtedly invaluable substance.

However, keen observers will be aware that this finite resource has not yet reached stasis. Indeed, projects such as Qatar Petroleum’s Qatar-2 Helium Plant, which once on stream in 2013 will constitute the world’s largest helium refining unit, are indicative of an imminent shift at the very core of the helium industry.

Poised between dependence and demand
Before addressing this shift, it is necessary to appreciate the delicate balance at the heart of today’s helium industry – namely, its dependence upon natural gas. Unlike many resources, which can be preserved for use at a later date, helium is a by-product of the natural gas supply chain.

In order to be used it must be extracted otherwise ‘venting’ occurs where it remains with natural gas and is lost to the atmosphere at the end-user stage. Dr William Nuttall co-editor of the yet to be released, ‘The Future of Helium as a Natural Resource’, and Senior Lecturer at Cambridge Judge Business School, University of Cambridge helped to explain, “Fundamentally there is a certain irony that a material that is so important for a future low-carbon society is itself a by-product of natural gas.”

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