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Are We Running Out of Helium?

The production manager poked his head in my office. “Just to keep you in the loop, we are almost out of helium and our supplier is out of stock.” No way, not us, I thought. This was something we only heard about from some of our customers. We would chuckle at the complaints from party stores about having to restrict the sale of helium balloons. Now we were at the risk of shutting down production due to lack of helium.

Is it hype or is it real? Are we running out of helium? What are the long term prospects? The January 2012 US Geological Survey Mineral Commodity Summaries identified US helium resources (including stored reserves and probable resources) at over 20 billion cubic meters as of 2006. In 2011, approximately 140 million cubic meters of helium were produced in the US from a combination of natural gas sources and the US strategic reserve located near Amarillo, Texas. At our current consumption rate we would have enough helium to last over 100 years. If you factor in worldwide resources and consumption you get over 300 years of supply. The current issue, however, is production capacity.

The  current supply situation is the result of a complex combination of a federal law requiring the sell off of the US strategic helium reserve, reduction in natural gas production (helium is primarily extracted from natural gas), and facilities issues in a few of the US production facilities. The US Geological Survey predicts current production capacity to meet demands for the next 5 year, but also indicated the need for additional worldwide production facilities.

Helium will be around for hundreds of years. Supply interruptions may linger for a few years. Prices are likely to continue to rise.

Users of helium for leak testing applications represented only about 4% of domestic consumption in 2011. Cryogenic applications represented the largest consumption at almost one third. For most of the helium applications there are no suitable substitute gases. As a user of helium for leak testing applications, what are your options? Can you totally eliminate the need for helium? Can you reduce usage? Can you recover it? Are there alternate tracer gases you should consider? I’m planning on a series of blog posts that will discuss these issues that face those who use helium for leak testing.