JUN 28, 2017 6:00 AM PDT

The Diplomatic Dispute that Leads to Helium Supply Shortage

WRITTEN BY: Daniel Duan

Early June, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and several other Middle Eastern countries severed their ties with Qatar, in protest of the country’s support for extremist Islamic groups and Iran. As a part of their isolation plan, the Arab nations initiated the blockade around their shared borders with Qatar. This diplomatic fallout creates an unintended problem: interruption of shipment and trade routes prevented commercial helium product from being exported and Qatar halted its helium production after the blockade. To those in the field of science, this means a looming shortage of helium and price increases for scientific instrument users.

Spectral lines of helium. Credit: Wikipedia

Making up 5.2 ppm of the earth’s atmosphere, the helium on our planet is produced from radioactive decay. Heavy radioisotopes of uranium and thorium emit alpha particles, which is essentially helium nuclei. Once emitted, the particles immediately capture electrons from the surrounding materials to form helium. It is estimated 3000 metric tons of helium are generated per year throughout the hard and rigid outer layer of the Earth.

Nowadays most of commercial helium are produced from natural gas extraction. Due to its low boiling point, helium can be isolated in low temperature and high pressure conditions, where most gaseous components from the crude be removed. Back in 2008, 78% of world’s helium came from US and 10% from Algeria, while Russia, Poland and Qatar made up the rest 12%. However, Qatar has rapidly increased the domestic production capacity since then. Its market fraction jumped to 25% by 2013, and around 30% before the country slipped into the diplomatic crisis.

Helium is the critical coolant for many scientific and medical instruments that produce electromagnetic field like nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). It is also a perfect carrier gas for gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. Facing the imminent shortage, operators of helium-dependent instruments are actively searching for coping strategies. For NMR users, a recycling system starts to make sense despite the heavy price tag. For analytical instrument users, adopting hydrogen as a carrier gas and actively conserving helium would be necessary to survive.

Aerial view of Hamad Port. Credit: Aecom

Since both sides of the dispute are still in no mood to reconcile, helium distributors are thinking about setting up regular shipments from Qatar’s Port of Hamad. However, this will only work if the ocean route out of the country is not blocked. Meanwhile the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which currently produces about 20% of global supply, has ramped up production at its Cliffside facility in Texas, in hopes of offsetting the looming shortage.

Source: Chemical & Engineering News

About the Author
  • Graduated with a bachelor degree in Pharmaceutical Science and a master degree in neuropharmacology, Daniel is a radiopharmaceutical and radiobiology expert based in Ottawa, Canada. With years of experience in biomedical R&D, Daniel is very into writing. He is constantly fascinated by what's happening in the world of science. He hopes to capture the public's interest and promote scientific literacy with his trending news articles. The recurring topics in his Chemistry & Physics trending news section include alternative energy, material science, theoretical physics, medical imaging, and green chemistry.
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