It’s never a good sign when a shortage can be defined on an annual basis. The helium shortage of 2012 has many of the same root causes as in past years with some disturbing additions.
Let’s be clear, the current shortage of helium is due to mismanagement. In 1996 the United States Congress began selling off the supply of helium which the government amassed over the previous fifty years in an underground rock formation in the central U.S.
The helium in storage was a strategic reserve that compromised nearly one billion cubic meters. It was the largest reserve in the world and reflected the richness of the helium resource in the country.
The sale of the gas is meant to offset expenditures for collection and storage which were approximately 1.5 billion dollars.
Every spring the public is deluged with soft news stories about the price of helium filled party balloons. This year some suppliers have informed their customers that an actual shortage exists and balloons might not be available in the days before their event.
Among all the talk of party balloons there are a few mentions of uses of the gas in medicine, industry, and research.
Commercial Use of Helium
The inert chemical nature of helium makes it very valuable in situations where reaction with other substances could cause contamination issues. In liquid form it is a potent coolant used to attain temperatures near absolute zero in medical and research equipment.
In the maritime industry helium is mostly used in welding where a specified process must be used to assure the strength and quality of a weld. There are certain aluminum alloys that are used extensively in shipbuilding which must be welded with helium as a shielding gas.
Some of the strongest alloys do not produce a satisfactory weld without the corrosion resistance of this specific shielding gas. Shipbuilders using these alloys are basing design decisions on the strength of the weld and depend on proper implementation of the specification for the welding process.
Helium in the Maritime Industry
Since most vessels have a long process of design to build it is possible that helium shortages were not anticipated in the early engineering phases of some projects. In the best situations a vessel might have a significant increase in cost because of the price of helium. This is especially true of military and heavy duty commercial vessels built primarily of aluminum alloy like the USCG RMB or the Alloy version of the US Navy Littoral Combat Ship. The worst case could mean redesign or retrofit to keep the same integrity.
Many military specifications have a much tighter tolerance for weld fit and penetration than conventional shipbuilding specifications. Additionally, the welds on these vessels are often continuous and have greater width. In some cases elaborate welding patterns are used to relive stress and add strength. A technique called reverse back step stitch welding requires the welder to pass over the same weld bead a second time and repeat the process on the opposite side of the plate or fixture. Intensive operations like this require a lot of helium.
The other material welded with helium is stainless steel. In commercial vessels it is most common to find stainless steel in cargo handling equipment or in piping throughout the ship. Some of these stainless steel welds can be made using alternative shielding gases like Argon or Tri-Mix but those welds will not have the smoothness of a helium shielded weld. In some cases, like waste or cargo handling, it is important that a weld is as smooth as possible to avoid costly maintenance.
The smoothness of a weld made with helium is due to the insulating properties of the gas. Helium holds heat better than any other shielding gas and that allows the filler to make a smooth joint.
The smooth joints of a helium weld are also important for aesthetics. Commercial manufactures of recreational boats make much smaller welds than shipbuilders when fabricating guard rails but still use a considerable quantity of gas. Grinding these welds is not safe or practical because it weakens the joint or causes burrs and rough areas that are difficult to remove with the electro-polishing used by most manufactures.
Tube and lug systems similar to aftermarket products can be used if it will not harm brand perception or the safety rating of the vessel. Most classification societies do not accept any sort of safety barrier that is not permanently attached. So while tubes and lugs are acceptable in less expensive recreational boats they are almost never found on commercial craft.
Efforts to End the Helium Shortage
The United States Congress takes the greatest blame by simply not taking any action on this issue. That situation is compounded by increased natural gas drilling which produces helium that was formed over millions of years by the decay of radioactive elements underground.
This mixture of natural gas and helium has much less value to the producer since the price of natural gas is historically very low and it takes considerable energy to extract and purify the helium.
Some operations in Russia, North Africa and the Middle East are exporting limited quantities of the gas but it is not enough to meet rising demand. The only new domestic production is in the State of Wyoming.
These producers have a limited life span and therefore few are coming forward to invest in the long term. Profits of these companies will soar as the supply dwindles but soon after the helium economy will cease to exist. Helium is a finite resource and once it escapes into the atmosphere it quickly disperses into space. Helium cannot be distilled efficiently from the air like other gasses since it makes up a tiny fraction of the total mixture.
Experts think that all helium will be gone between the year 2035 and 2050. Even critical supplies of the gas will be gone shortly after those dates because helium is very difficult to store in most conditions.