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article imageQatar crisis has huge implications for helium supply chain

By Karen Graham     Jul 11, 2017 in Technology
The growing crisis between Qatar and its neighbors has had an unexpected effect on the global availability of helium. Qatar supplies 25 percent of the world's helium and its inability to ship it to ports will create a global supply chain crisis.
When we hear the word helium, we think first of birthday party balloons or the huge balloons in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade. Most people don't realize the importance of the inert gas and its many applications in a multitude of global industries.
Qatar, a very rich country known for its vast quantities of natural gas, also has another distinction, not as widely known. Qatar produces 25 percent of the world's helium gas, essential to everything from scientific and medical instrumentation to supersonic wind tunnels, telescopes, and the Large Hadron Collider.
Helium is the second lightest element in the universe and besides being extremely light, it can get extremely cold without freezing. These unique properties make its use essential in industrial, medical and scientific fields. And this brings us to the Qatar crisis.
A stunning close up of the sun.
NASA's STEREO (Ahead) spacecraft observed this visually stunning prominence eruption on Sept. 29, 2008 in the 304 wavelength of extreme UV light. It rose up and cascaded to the right over several hours, appearing something like a flag unfurling, as it broke apart and headed into space. The material observed is actually ionized Helium at about 60,000 degrees. Prominences are relatively cool clouds of gas suspended above the Sun and controlled by magnetic forces. (NASA/STEREO)
Helium is being made all the time because it is the by-product of radioactive decay processes, and the gas is very adept at escaping into the atmosphere. Most of it is trapped in underground reservoirs, usually in the same places where natural gas is found. A few gas drillers go to the extra effort of separating out the gas and either sell it or store it.
But when there is a low helium to methane gas ratio in the field, the cost of extraction and export is not worth the time or money that could be made, so drillers don't bother with the gas. Qatar produces only 3.0 percent of the world's methane, so helium or methane really hasn't been a big issue with the rest of the world.
Qatar grabs a big slice of the helium market
Once Qatar made the decision to go down the helium extraction road, they quickly grabbed a quarter of the world market, and this is where the crisis in the Gulf could have dire implications on a global basis. Saudi Arabia, in trying to bring Qatar to heel, cut off its supply route.
Qatar's port authority last week announced two new shipping services to ports in Oman circumven...
Qatar's port authority last week announced two new shipping services to ports in Oman circumventing the need for cargo to stop in the neighboring United Arab Emirates
Qatar had been sending its helium supplies over land through Saudi Arabia to a large port in the United Arab Emirates, where it was then shipped to Singapore and factories and labs around the world. But with the blockade in place, helium production was stopped for three weeks, resuming on July 2.
Phil Kornbluth, a helium industry consultant, told the Atlantic that Qatar has found a new port in Oman, even though the route getting there is more complex and expensive to use. Qatar is also working on the logistics of getting the helium canisters back so they can be slowly cooled before they are filled again.
“The thing this really highlights is that the helium supply chain, even though there’s ample supply when everything is running, is inflexible and fragile," says Kombluth. And the supply chain crisis could get even worse if the Gulf crisis escalates. And this scenario has again raised the question of recycling of helium.
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) Magnet Facility  which is used to train engineers and technicians  a...
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) Magnet Facility, which is used to train engineers and technicians, at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Meyrin, near Geneva on Febuary 10, 2015
Richard Juilliart, AFP/File
Recycling of helium - A questionable issue
According to ZME Science, the U.S. passed an absurd law in 1996 that mandated that all helium in a disused natural gas field in Amarillo, Texas be sold by 2015 in order to recoup the initial investment that went into building up the reserve.
That field was estimated to hold about half of the world's reserves. That law also said that the same amount of helium was to be sold off every year, in other words, the amount sold was to follow a straight line, irrespective of the global supply or demand.
This mandate caused the market to swell and drove down the price of helium on the global market.
And today, helium is way too cheap to be worth the cost that would go into recycling, even though scientists are now saying the Earth's supply could be depleted within the next 30 years, and that fact amplifies just how precious helium really is. Unless we start looking to the future and using our technologies to develop cost-effective ways to reprocess helium, many industries will suffer.
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