Helium: Economic Challenges and Solutions

April 2021

The demand for helium gas is expected to increase, but many challenges are restricting supply. As a result, helium prices have increased over the past ten years. This article discusses these economic challenges and what is being done to overcome them.

Helium is a non-renewable resource that is expected to be in high demand in the future. It has various usages in industry and science, most notably as the coolant for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy instruments. Another notable use is in cryogenics, a branch of physics that involves very low temperatures. It is also used in special light conducting fiber optic cables to amplify signals and other applications.

Helium is known as the second most abundant element in the universe. The vast majority of helium on Earth occurs naturally as helium gas, and is extracted from natural gas wells through an industrial process called fractional distillation. Helium comes out of the ground mixed with natural gas liquids (NGL) such as methane, ethane, propane, butane and pentane at concentrations between 0.3 to 3% by volume. This mixture must be separated since helium has no commercial value other than as a coolant for industry and science applications.

This increasingly limited resource is available to these high-demand users through an evolving set of sources. That includes mines of natural gas and petroleum like the ones found in Qatar and other oil rich nations as well as also coming from seafood dishes like prawns and lobster that contain it in the water they live in. Much is used for research purposes in labs but also some significant amount is made for medical diagnostic applications such as MRI scanners or deep sea diving equipment. In fact, more than 90% of the helium commercially available worldwide is used in medical applications.

But this new technology driven demand is now being challenged by a number of factors including those around global warming, burgeoning population growth, and dwindling helium reserves. These challenges are being met with innovative solutions from several companies but the market still has some room for improvement before shortages will become a big issue.

And it is this fact that provides an interesting opportunity for companies that understand what needs to be done in order to meet these challenges to provide the improved solutions we all need. But only if these market leaders take these steps will they be able to do so.

These challenges noted above are the main drivers for the high growth of the global helium market. Although demand from the medical sector is still high, it is now getting limited by these challenges, which are expected to become even more prominent in the coming few years.

In fact, the global helium market is expected to witness a higher growth rate. Helium is also available in other forms like liquid and solid which too can be used as alternatives for party balloons. Considering all these factors as well as current and future demand, it can be anticipated that overall demand for helium will keep on increasing over a period of time.

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