There have been a number of factors that have contributed to the most recent, and ongoing, helium shortage that labs around the world are facing. These include the Amur helium plant shutting down for construction, the US Bureau of Land Management going down again for unplanned maintenance in January 2022, expectations for reduced production from Qatar, and the uncertainty of the effects of the situation in eastern Europe.
This has been an ongoing problem for many years now and, considering helium is a finite resource, the crisis will most likely continue to escalate each year moving forward.
Bureau of Land Management
The US Bureau of Land Management, the office responsible for the conservation and sale of Federally owned helium in the United States, had caused a tightening of the helium market in the second half of 2021 due to a four-month maintenance outage. The BLM are now down again, in 2022, for unplanned maintenance which seems likely to last several months. Given the BLM are responsible for supplying over 40% of domestic demand for helium in the USA, this will be particularly impactful on US labs.
Gazprom’s Amur Project
Gazprom, the largest publicly listed natural gas company in the world, based in St Petersburg, Russia, will reportedly be able to produce 60 million cubic meters of helium per year when it reaches capacity in 2025.
While the Bureau of Land Management was shut down for maintenance at the end of 2021, it was universally thought that Gazprom’s Amur project would begin supplying large quantities of helium into the market to avert another supply shortage.
It was reported in Gasworld, this was proven wrong after a few weeks of production in September 2021, when the Amur helium plant halted production to complete construction. To add to this, an explosion and a fire at the natural gas processing facility which produces the feed gas for one of Amur’s three helium plants means that Amur’s helium production will likely stop until at least quarter three of 2022.
There is some speculation around the restart of production at the Amur plant, ranging from the optimistic late Q3 2022 to the more pessimistic predictions that Amur will not be producing any helium before 2023. The latest opinions seem to be swaying more to this pessimistic prediction that it’s unlikely that the Gazprom site will be producing anything before 2023.
Conflict in Eastern Europe
While the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not having a direct impact on helium supplies at the moment, it is thought that there could be both short- and long-term effects of the conflict. In the short-term, there are a number of containers in Russia and, given suspended service to Russian ports, there is not a quick way to have these exported from the country.
In the long-term, there could be real political risks as well as sanctions that could be put on Russia which would make it unviable for many industries to use the helium from Russia’s Gazprom Helium Hub. While exports of natural gas and oil have not been included in the current sanctions, if severe sanctions are put on helium for an extended period, then this would hugely affect the availability of helium to the global market.
Supply Chain Disruption
The ramifications of the COVID pandemic on the supply chain are still being felt throughout the world. With an increased demand in gas after industries started to bounce back from the initial impact of the pandemic, coupled with production sites struggling to keep up with the demand, labs can expect these disruptions to continue.
Many labs around the world are finding that their suppliers are putting them on allocation with some labs only being able to get 45-65% of the helium that they actually require. Given how crucial helium is to many industries globally, this is obviously very concerning. With many labs seeing demand increase, like this lab based out of Korea, this reduction in the availability of helium could be even more problematic considering labs are needing more helium than before, not less.
Today, unlike previous shortages, labs are seeing themselves cut off from any supply of helium at all. With no supply of helium, this renders equipment completely useless in most cases. For those labs who have been lucky enough to maintain a source of helium, they are finding themselves on allocation – receiving a fraction of the volume of helium required and prices that have spiked by up to 30%.
It's been reported that helium is set to see a major global shift in production in the next few years. North America, as of 2021, was responsible for 51% of helium production and, by 2025, this is expected to reduce to 37%. With a reduction in the share of global helium production, and frequent issues in the helium landscape, it appears that North America could soon be more reliant on sourcing helium from overseas markets – bringing with it the issues of supply chain disruption which have been rife in the recent past.
What are the alternatives to helium?
Hydrogen has long been considered the superior carrier gas for gas chromatography. Hydrogen’s high diffusivity allows faster linear velocities and shorter analyses, but it still offers a similar separation efficiency as helium.
For many labs, there is uncertainty over whether hydrogen can be used for specific methods. You will be able to find a list of methods that have been re-written to use Hydrogen as carrier gas for GC as an alternative to helium here.
Once you know that your method can be converted to hydrogen, you will be able to follow this step by step guide which provides the necessary information to convert your carrier gas supply from helium to hydrogen.
What are the benefits of a gas generator?
Unlike gas cylinders, a gas generator offers a safer alternative for your lab. By only producing gas on-demand, your generator does not pose the same risks as stored gas which range from minor injury to devastating results.
The most obvious risk is the volume of gas that can be stored in each cylinder, coupled with the high pressure that they are typically stored at. Should a leak occur in a gas cylinder, it wouldn’t take much of the capacity of the cylinder to render the lab a dangerous space for your staff.
You can read more about how a gas generator helped avert disaster in Singapore back in 2020 here.
With a PEAK hydrogen generator, you have built-in safety features which can put your mind at ease: internal leak checks, external leak detection, pressure monitoring and automatic cell shutdown at high pressure.
With an in-house gas generator your lab is no longer reliant on repeated deliveries of bulk gas supplies. With the removal of recurring gas deliveries, you are no longer bound by cylinder contracts, rental charges and deliveries. Instead, with a gas generator, you can start making a return on your investment within three years.
With a gas generator, your lab will have a constant on-demand gas supply which means your lab will experience very little downtime and not have to deal with the effects of frequent gas shortages.
With a number of instrument manufacturers increasingly recommending hydrogen as a carrier gas instead of helium, labs are now being given the freedom to move away from the unreliable and volatile helium market which can derail important analysis. With the option of an in-house hydrogen gas generator, you can have the peace of mind that the gas you require will always be available exactly when you need it.
https://www.peakscientific.com/discover/user-stories/university-of-hamburg/ - Applied Chemistry
https://www.peakscientific.com/discover/user-stories/csir/ - Environmental