Helium supply is crucial for spy balloons and missile technology, but it is running out

By John Davison | 17 October 2012

“There are huge losses in handling and transporting helium that have not been economic to address” – Tom Welton, professor of sustainable chemistry, Imperial College London

Think helium, think balloons for children’s parties. And, of course, think silly voices. But the US military, for one, does not think that helium is a laughing matter.

A spate of media reports has recently focussed on how we have been wasting helium, not least on children’s balloons. This is threatening the supply of the gas for several important applications, such as in MRI scanners, which are used to diagnose medical conditions.

But the key role of helium across several industrial and military applications means that the potential crisis is even more wide-ranging. Indeed, we may soon be witnessing the start of a shift in the world’s helium-based balance of power.

Helium, found alongside some natural-gas reserves, is prized as an inert gas with extreme melting and boiling points.

It is widely used in electronics. It is crucial in scientific research, such as at the huge project being carried out at the Large Hadron Collider, which runs under the Swiss-French border near Geneva. Helium also plays a key role in nuclear programmes, where it is used to purge explosive rocket fuel from missiles.

It is finite, it is irreplaceable, and it is running out.

Today, the US produces 75 per cent of the world’s helium. Nearly half of that comes from the US federal helium reserve, held in a huge natural underground reservoir near Amarillo, Texas.

The reserve was established in 1925 to secure military supply for use in barrage and reconnaissance balloons, or ‘blimps’. During the Cold War, its strategic importance increased because of helium’s use in missiles and in the American space programme.

By 1996, however, the blimps had long gone, missile numbers had reduced and the space programme was severely curtailed. So, the US government decided to sell off the huge reserve to private sources, in the hope of recouping some of the estimated $1.3 billion spent on the reserve. Most of the reserve was to be sold by 2015.

Some experts say that this sell-off flooded the market with cheap helium, driving down the market price. This meant that re-cycling the gas was not economic, and the foundation for current shortages was laid.

Tom Welton, professor of sustainable chemistry at Imperial College London, said: “This has led to terrible waste.”

“There are huge losses in handling and transporting helium that have not been economic to address.”

Official explanations for the present shortage point to the temporary disruption of supply at two key US sources, and it is expected to continue until late next year when new sources come online.

The US government denies that there is any problem with helium supply.

But the most serious implications are over the long term. Computer modelling predicts that, at the current rate of sell-off, the useable life of the Amarillo reservoir will not go beyond 2020. This would have a big impact on the world market.

Experts warn that the world could run out of helium in 25 to 30 years. And this is a worry to the US military.

The surge in the use of a new generation of spy balloons, or ‘aerostats’, has seen demand for helium go up from 49,000 cubic metres in 2009 to 531,000 cubic metres this year in Afghanistan alone.

America has also developed a giant surveillance airship, the ‘Long-Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle’. Prior to its maiden flight in August, an emergency contract had to be issued to source more than 20,000 cubic metres of helium needed to fill it.

There remains the ongoing demand of maintaining America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles.

So, those holding the remaining reserves of helium could be in a commanding position in the coming decades.

Iran, a country with its own nuclear ambitions, last year announced a massive find in the South Pars gas field, which it shares with Qatar. Could this be a case of who laughs last, laughs longest?

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