He Is Your Friend

By Hongjun Zhou, PhD

As one of the inert, noble gases, helium (He) has unique physical properties that are not replaceable by any other gas available on earth and in the universe. Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, at ~23%. Helium 4He atom has two electrons, two protons and two neutrons. Its naturally occurring, ultra low-abundance isotopic brother is 3He, at only 0.00014%.

Helium has wide-spread applications, far beyond being light-weight, safe filling for party balloons and blimps. Its accessibility and reserve on earth plays an essential role in basic and high-tech research, and is vital in many areas of the economy. However, its availability has been threatened in the past years by poor policy making and inaction. More serious helium shortage is on the horizon, 10 to 20 years from now once the Federal helium reserve runs out and if new reliable supply cannot be maintained. Unless serious efforts are made to encourage helium exploration, extraction and conservation, the reliability of future helium supply will be jeopardized, threatening basic scientific research and the function and services of medical diagnostic MRI and NMR instruments, among many other applications.

History of Federal Helium Supply

The Federal Helium Reserve is located near Amarillo, Texas, in a natural geologic gas storage formation, called the Bush Dome. It consists of a network of storage reservoir, enrichment plant, and pipeline system. The reserve is managed by The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and supplies ~50% of the US market and ~30% of the world market.

The Federal Helium Program started in 1925 to supply the military with a reliable source of helium used in buoyant aircraft such as blimps. After the original defence use of the helium subsidized, the federal helium program remained the only helium supplier in the US in much expanded applications until 1960. In 1960, due to increased demand for helium, Congress authorized purchase of helium from private natural gas producers and storage in the Federal Helium Reserve. As the helium demand further increased worldwide, Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act (HPA) of 1996 (H.R. 4168) which authorized BLM to continue to manage the Federal Reserve with the goal of recovering the cost of the federal investment and the sell-off and disposal of the helium reserve by Jan 2015. This bill was sponsored by Rep. Christopher Cox, and signed into law by Pres. Clinton.

"Not later than January 1, 2005, the Secretary shall commence offering for sale crude helium from helium reserves owned by the United States in such amounts as would be necessary to dispose of all such helium reserves in excess of 600,000,000 cubic feet on a straight-line basis between such date and January 1, 2015."

"(B) On repayment of all amounts referred to in subsection (c), the fund established under this section shall be terminated and all moneys received under this Act shall be deposited in the general fund of the Treasury."

Because of the dominant market share and ~80% of worldwide helium storage of the Federal Helium Reserve , the mandate to dispose the helium reserve led to depressed helium price for decades and waste of a precious, irrecoverable resource at a rapid rate. This short-sightedness offered no incentive for the private sector to extract and store helium as a byproduct of oil and gas exploration, creating a serious helium shortage problem down the road.

The BLM was able to recover the cost associated with the Helium Reserve in October, 2013, earlier than expected. Once the debt was paid off, the Helium Privatization Act (HPA) of 1996 called for cessation of helium sale by the Federal Helium Reserve, closure of the facility and cutting off funding for managing the helium reserve. The HPA created a serious, imminent helium crisis in 2013 that led to rigorous lobbying efforts across many fields and industries. These efforts led to the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act (H. R. 527) that passed the U.S. House and Senate, and was signed into law on October 2, 2013.

Helium Shortage Crisis to Come ?

Based on 2015 data from U.S. Geological Survey, estimated 2014 domestic consumption of helium was 1.2 billion cubic feet and was used for cryogenic applications, 32%; for pressurizing and purging, 18%; for controlled atmospheres, 18%; for welding cover gas, 13%; leak detection, 4%; breathing mixtures, 2%; and other, 13%. As of October 2013, the Federal Helium Reserve stored ~10 billion cubic feet of helium. The current legislature calls for the closure of the reserve for private sector auction when the federal storage drops to ~ 3 billion cubic feet. Without new addition to the domestic helium storage, the Federal Helium Reserve could only sustain the supply to the US market for ~10 years, assuming a 50% market share of the Federal supply. The worldwide demand for helium has been increasing steadily. Obviously, new helium supply sources and conservation are absolutely required to prolong our access to this precious natural resource.


Background Information About Most Recent Helium Legislation

Factoids About Helium

Current Commercial Use of Helium

Basic Research Use of Helium

H. Zhou, Sept 2015