What is Helium?
Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen. It was actually discovered on the sun before it was found on the earth. It has also been detected in great abundance in hotter stars. It is a colorless and odorless inert gas that has unique properties such as the lowest boiling and melting points of all the elements.
Where does it come from?
Helium is a non-renewable natural resource that is most commonly recovered from natural gas deposits. Geologic conditions in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas make the natural gas in these areas some of the most helium-rich in the United States. International sources of natural gas tend to have lower helium concentrations.
What is helium used for?
Helium is an essential resource for the aerospace industry, aluminum helium arc welding, computer chip and optical fiber manufacturing, scuba diving mixtures, and for medical uses including MRI magnet cooling, lung tissue visualization, heart catheterization methods, and medical lasers. Helium is also used in rocket engine testing, scientific balloons, and blimps. Surveillance devices, air to air missile guidance, and chemical warfare testing systems are just some of the military uses for helium. The most recognized uses for helium gas are party and parade balloons. However, these make up a very small percentage of the overall demand for helium.
What is the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) role in the Federal Helium Program?
Amarillo, Texas is home to America’s Federal Helium Program (Program). The BLM Amarillo Field Office staff operates and maintains the only government helium storage reservoir and pipeline system in the country. This Program supplies about 42% of the U. S. crude helium requirements and about 35% of the world’s demand for crude helium. The BLM supplies crude helium to the private helium refining companies. These companies refine the helium and market it to the consumers. Distribution of refined helium is controlled by private industry as authorized by Congress.
Which companies supply federal helium to end users?
There are several major refiners of helium including Praxair, Linde, Air Products Helium, Inc. to name a few. A list of current federal helium suppliers can be found here. The government does not endorse any particular vendor(s).
Is there currently a worldwide shortage of helium?
Yes. The current global shortage of helium is real. In the simplest terms, the shortage is based on rising demand outpacing supply. Contributing factors to the 2012 helium shortage include:
- Maintenance issues at plants in Qatar, Algeria, and Australia;
- A new plant in Wyoming that has been delayed; and
- A drop in natural-gas prices which has reduced helium production.
Can BLM produce more helium to help ease the shortage?
No. BLM is producing crude helium at maximum production rate, currently 5.8 million cubic feet per day. In 2012, production from the Federal Helium Reserve was 2.1 bcf, while total domestic sales volume was 4.0 bcf.
Is the BLM annual plant maintenance closure contributing to the shortage?
The BLM coordinates its once-a-year preventative maintenance shutdown of the Crude Helium Enrichment Unit with all the private refiners to minimize disruption of the helium supply. Unit shutdowns are typically about 10 days long and are based on manufacturer’s maintenance recommendations. There are short-term reductions in the supply of crude helium during the shutdown that may result in reduced allocations from private companies to their customers. However, once the plant is back online, private refiners can make up volume and restock their helium inventories typically within one week. Preventative maintenance is a good business practice that reduces the risk of longer, unscheduled shutdowns.
Will this shortage improve anytime soon? What about the future?
The present, acute shortage is expected to continue into 2013 until new supply sources come online in the U.S. and overseas. Long- term trends are more difficult to pinpoint. If demand for helium remains strong, shortages may become more commonplace. However, that same demand may encourage new technologies for extracting and refining helium that would bring new sources of helium to the market, thus reducing future shortages.
Have there been previous global helium shortages?
Yes, there have been previous shortages but none that have lasted as long as the current situation because not all of the factors occurred at the same time or to the same degree as now (Winter 2012-2013).
Media inquiries about helium should be directed to Paul McGuire at 405/794-9624 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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