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Helium shortage hits home at Harvard; forces shutdown of some experiments

The Harvard Gazette reports a global shortage of helium, caused in large part by sanctions on Russia, which ships much of the world's supply, is beginning to affect research in physics, engineering, chemistry, biology and medical research, all of which use the gas to cool things down to temperatures way, way below freezing.

At Harvard, researchers may have to shut down pieces of expensive technical equipment that rely on helium and liquid helium, the super cold liquid version of the gas. In some cases, this could cause irrevocable damage to the instruments and force some of the scientists to bring lines of research to a halt. Some ripple effects could include graduation delays for students whose thesis work depends on those projects. ...

Charles Vidoudez at the Harvard Center for Mass Spectrometry is starting to lose sleep over the shortage. Vidoudez, the center’s principal research scientist, uses it to keep four of the facility’s mass spectrometers at the extremely low pressures they need to be at to operate. The halt would affect dozens of labs that depend on the center to perform a range of analyses using the machines. Vidoudez has spent countless hours calling or emailing just about every supplier that he could find.

A mid-January leak at the US national helium reserve in Texas didn't help, researchers say.


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But it appears that Russia has recently cut off exports of helium (https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/russi...)

Anyways, the shortage in helium, now in the 16th or so year of a temporary supply shortage, is far more complex than that. Russia was supposed to be one of the big factors in resolving the shortage *this year* by bringing online their massive, new gas processing facility in Amur until it suffered an explosion in early January and has not returned to operation.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and resulting sanctions on Russian energy did shift some of the LNG supply lines, which did result in a loss of some helium production from LNG. Oh, and our own helium facilities in the US have had operational issues too! They're being fixed and we're told that the second half of this year (so starting July...) we should be seeing improvements to the supply of helium and next year we should be getting back to normal, whatever that is, I haven't seen a "normal" supply of helium since I got involved in procurement of this valuable resource at a different research university.

Oh, and you know what else requires helium? MRIs.

So, considering how terrible balloons themselves are for the environment, why don't you do us all a favor and stop wasting precious helium by using balloons for temporary decorations.


This is bizzare, how can party city and whatever just be allowed to spill this shit into kids party balloons if this is a resource with a shortage that's required for so much super important real life stuff? There's no regulations on this ? ?

Our society is unhinged.


...if helium party balloons were eliminated, as they obviously should be?

We are doomed.


How does helium use for balloons compare with scientific and medical uses? If helium balloons were 100% banned, would it make a difference?

What would happen if we stop drilling for gas for environmental reasons? Would an unintended side effect be a problem with the global helium supply?


and they are buying it in bulk from the same handful of suppliers that I am. They are using "less" helium because they are taking condensed liquid helium and expanding it into a low pressure gas inside balloons, but those big party supply companies have contracts that get them access to the same size orders of liquid helium that scientific and medical users are placing. I don't have exact numbers on hand, since I'm not making policy here, I'm just hoping every time I need to place an order that it can be filled by my suppliers.

Helium is a byproduct of natural gas production, so as long as we're using natural gas, we will be producing helium.


But if balloon use is, say, 1%, and scientific and industrial is 99%, it won't make much of a difference to ban helium balloons.

If they're placing the same size orders, maybe it's not 1%.

It sounds like the government should step in and make sure essential uses are prioritized.

1% would make a difference because there’s 100% utilization of supply with significant excess demand. There’s other issues related to the helium supply chain that are complex, like having the containers to store, transport and dispense from. Those are in short supply and not trivial to increase so all of the resources dedicated to getting those balloons filled up at the party store could be better used supplying essential needs.

This website "Balloon Facts," says 15% of the world supply is used in balloons. There's no date on the page, so I don't know if the current situation has altered that percentage.


It was formed by the Big Bang and there's lots out in space, but on Earth it comes from radioactive decay and will eventually run out, or at least we're using it up WAY faster than Mother Earth is cooking up a new batch. Which is why we have a strategic helium reserve. I agree, no more helium balloons.

but there are ways to recover and recycle it. Those systems are expensive, though the federal funding agencies that pay for much of academic scientific research are starting to discuss funding the this recycling equipment. There's also commercial and academic work being done to eliminate the need for helium in many applications. Some commercial equipment already exists and shows promise of meeting or exceeding our helium cooled equipment with further development.

As for the National Helium Reserve, in accordance with acts of Congress, it is being depleted to zero and privatized.


That's something that should have been reversed years ago. Absolutely ridiculous to sell off a non-renewable resource.

without breathing helium from balloons we won't be able to talk like the Chipmunks.


you can breathe hydrogen from balloons.

Another question: is helium consumed when used for cooling, or is it recirculated unless it leaks?

When liquid helium is used for cooling, it is generally lost to the atmosphere as helium gas. Helium doesn't want to be a liquid here on earth, it would like to be a gas. But it's an inert process so the helium is still just helium, so there are systems that can capture the helium gas "boil-off" and re-compress it back into the liquid state and circulate it back for cooling.

These systems are starting to become more popular, some are simple systems close to the instruments(s) being cooled, some rely on collection of helium from multiple sources, basically into big balloons, that are brought together in one location for compression and reuse.

I haven't seen a quote on one of these systems but I'm told it's in the range of $100K right now, which is about 20% the cost of one of the lower end systems that needs liquid helium. Or that's 10 years worth of helium at the current price for one system. If you can get 2-3 or more systems feeding into the recycler, then you are talking about >5% the combined value of the equipment and 2-3 years before you break even not needing to buy large volumes of liquid helium every year and it's a lot easier to justify the cost of the recycling equipment.

20 years ago, I worked for a company that was trying to sell their novel cryocooler for use with MRI machines. At that time, MRIs boiled off the LH2, and had to be refilled frequently. Very expensive. The cryocooler was to recondense the helium, so it wouldn't boil off. It wasn't reliable. Some years later, I worked for an MRI maker. By then Hitachi had a reliable recondeser, and all the MRIs had been refitted with them. So, the Helium used to cool them is mostly reused. I was surprised that those research scientists didn't recondense, but maybe their equipment configuration wouldn't allow it.

Strindberg will be inconsolable