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  • This Helium Thing Is Serious
Jul 2012
Jul. 5, 2012 — Reporters and copywriters have had a field day with the current helium shortage, the result of — or at least aggravated by — the 1996 Helium Privatization Act and the US government subsequently selling off stockpiles of the gas at rates well below market value.

In the past couple of months, we’ve seen all manner of headlines riffing on the impact of the shortage on everybody’s favorite market segment: the party balloon industry (“Helium shortage deflates balloon business”; “Worldwide helium shortage bursting party shops”). And sometimes on childhood memories of inhaling the gas (“Helium shortage no laughing matter”).

My favorite recurring theme in the coverage: the odd reference to dirigibles. Just this week, the satirical newspaper and website The Onion featured the helium shortage in its man-on-the-street “American Voices” section. One of the purported comments about the shortage: “As a dirigible pilot since 1935, I thank God for an excuse to get out of this [expletive] business.”

But the depleting helium supply — some predict the Earth will have completely run out of the gas by the end of this century — is, well, no laughing matter. Helium serves a broad range of applications beyond the party balloon and dirigible markets: from arc welding to cooling infrared detectors and the magnets in MRI scanners, from cryogenics to purging the tanks of liquid-fuelled NASA and Department of Defense rockets. And a diminished supply of the gas — accelerated by the federal government selling off its stockpiles — could have far-reaching and unforeseen consequences.

The US established the National Helium Reserve in 1925, having noted the value of the gas for defense, research and medicine applications (See: The Main Extraction: Helium Production in the US). By the 1990s, though, private demand had come to outpace federal demand and, with the Helium Privatization Act of 1996, Congress instructed the secretary of the interior to sell of the bulk of the reserve.

The problem: once the helium is gone, it’s gone. It is a non-renewable resource. And we are fast depleting the largest stockpile of the gas in the world.

Recognizing this, the National Research Council issued a report in 2010 — “Selling the Nation’s Helium Reserve” — that offered several recommendations with respect to improving the helium program (See: Cadillacs, Congress and the Helium Reserve). Following this, US Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and John Barrasso (R-WY) have introduced a bill — “The Helium Stewardship Act of 2012” — that outlines a specific strategy for managing the reserve.

Marcius Extavour, was the OSA/SPIE Arthur S. Guenther Congressional Fellow from 2010-2011. He was actively involved in development of the bill while working for Senator Bingaman in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. I spoke with him recently about the bill and how it might help the optics community.

“What we tried to do was bring some long-term stability of supply to the helium market,” he said. More than half of the helium sold in the US and a third of all helium sold worldwide comes from this single stockpile, so depleting it could have a considerable impact on consumers of the gas. If the national reserve were to run out, the cost of helium could rise dramatically — with potentially devastating consequences especially for small academic research groups.

Achieving long-term stability probably means increasingly the price slightly — “nothing artificially high,” Extavour said, “just to whatever the market rate should be.” Thus far the government has been selling helium at below market rates, seeking only to recover the 1.4 billion it spent building the reserve and the pipelines in Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma.

With due respect to the party balloon industry, the bill also aims to ensure preferential access for federal users: federal agencies and those research groups funded by federal grants. One of the proposals in the bill is to restrict access to the final 15 years of the helium supply to federal users only.

“This would be a great thing, especially for a small lab,” Extavour said. “The price increase [otherwise] could be the cost of a post-doc or a couple of graduate students.”

For an overview on helium and photonics, see: Helium: Up, Up and Away?

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