The Deflated Helium Industry

Until recently, the world’s seemingly abundant supply of helium has been extracted as a by-product of natural-gas production in just two dozen helium-rich fields. But, with a global helium shortage driving up prices and fueling rising anxiety in high-tech industries, the helium industry must change fundamentally.

OXFORD – Helium is vital in today’s technology-based world. It cools, with precision, the superconducting coils of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, as well as the silicon used to make chips for devices like smart phones or the glass that is drawn into optic fibers. For pressure-fed rockets, Big Physics, or even party balloons, there is no realistic alternative to helium.

Until recently, the world’s seemingly abundant supply of helium was extracted solely as a by-product of natural-gas production in just two dozen helium-rich fields. But global helium production shortfalls have driven double-digit inflation of helium prices and fueled rising anxiety in the scientific community. Now, prospectors in the United States – the world’s largest helium exporter – are exploring fields in search of helium exclusively.

Helium shortages inevitably spur debate about production and preservation practices. Since the 1996 US Helium Privatization Act (HPA) – which required the government to sell off its helium reserves using a rigid price formula in order to repay the debt accrued from a large helium buy-up in the 1960’s – there have been three such shortfalls.

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