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The unbearable lightness of helium

“Helium is very different to other finite resources, because if we don’t use it today it isn’t there for tomorrow.”

Helium is an abundant element that could play a crucial role in a low-carbon future, yet the industry that produces it has been dogged by short-term supply crises. But, warns Dr William Nuttall, it is long-term management of this vital resource we should be more concerned about.

“Helium is a remarkable element,” says Dr William Nuttall, former Senior Lecturer in Technology Policy at Cambridge Judge Business School and now Professor of Energy at The Open University. The second-lightest element in the periodic table, helium has the lowest boiling point of any liquid, the smallest size and greatest permeation rate of any molecule, and is chemically inert – a unique combination of properties exploited in applications from diving and dirigibles to communications and cryogenics.

Nuttall has long been fascinated by this unusual element. Having begun his academic career as a physicist working in laboratories that used it, he now takes a more strategic interest in helium and his new book co-edited with Professor Bartek Glowacki and Richard Clarke, both of the Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy at Cambridge – is a detailed analysis of this noble gas.

In The Future of Helium as a Natural Resource he explains:

If it did not exist there would have been no magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners in hospitals, a heavily retarded space and satellite programme, great difficultly in manufacturing optical fibres and computer chips … and, of course, no party balloons.”

More importantly, Nuttall argues the gas could also be key to the future technologies we need for a low-carbon world: “Many components of a possible low-carbon civilisation, such as magnetically levitated trains, high temperature nuclear reactors and nuclear fusion energy have all been imagined on an assumption of the availability of large quantities of affordable helium.” One might even imagine a return helium filled 1930s style airships replacing kerosene-thirsty jet aircraft. “It would be a slow way to cross the Atlantic, but it would be a low-carbon way,” he suggests.

And there’s the rub. Because as well as being crucial in a de-carbonised economy, helium production is intimately bound to one of the fossil fuels it might help replace. “Helium is arguably needed for many future technologies of the 21st century, but the great and central irony is that it’s a by-product of an unsustainable natural gas industry,” Nuttall points out.

It was American engineers in the early 20th century who discovered that helium often occurred with natural gas, as Bo Sears explains in The Future of Helium: “In the Spring of 1903, a small company called the Gas, Oil and Development Company drilled a well just off Main Street in the town of Dexter, Kansas in pursuit of oil and/or natural gas. Very quickly, a large gas reservoir estimated at nine million cubic feet of gas per day was found at a shallow depth of 400 feet. Celebrations were planned and the excitement was rampant throughout the small Kansas town.”

The crowd waited anxiously to see the gas ignited, but as the flame was placed in front of the gas stream it was quickly extinguished. Although it snuffed out the town’s hopes of a new Dexter, news of this non-flammable gas sparked the interest of Dr Bailey, a chemist at the University of Kansas, who announced at a scientific meeting in 1906 that the gas was helium.

From then until the end of the 20th century, the history of helium was an utterly American story. But having shaped the global supply of the gas, the USA is now seeing helium supply and demand moving east. Next year will see the opening of the Ras-Laffan Helium 2 project, which will make Qatar the world’s largest single helium-refining centre, capable of sourcing more than 20 per cent of global helium production. “Demand has increased dramatically in East Asia, and demand is global now in a way that it wasn’t 50 years ago,” says Nuttall.

Going global, however, is only one of the major changes affecting the helium industry; the others stem from changes in production and transport of natural gas, not least the move from pipelines to tankers.

Natural gas has traditionally been a pipeline industry. If there is no helium extraction, the helium remains blended with the natural gas, is combusted and goes into the atmosphere. That’s the traditional route to venting. However, the natural gas industry has been transformed in the last 15 years, firstly by the transition to liquefied natural gas (LNG).” he explains. “The process of liquefaction is a major incentive to separate helium from the natural gas, and also means helium extraction is economically viable even from natural gas with relatively low helium concentrations.”

The other force transforming the natural gas industry – but acting in the opposite direction as far as helium production is concerned – is shale gas. “It’s massively coming on stream, but the direct opportunities it offers helium are small because although shale rock traps natural gas, it’s highly porous to helium,” says Nuttall.

It is the helium industry’s dependence on, and dominance by, the natural gas industry that concerns him. “Helium globally is a $1 billion a year industry sitting on the back of a $1 trillion a year industry,” says Nuttall. “The natural gas industry is enormously larger than the helium industry and strategic choices are made in natural gas with no consideration at all given to helium.”

But given helium is an abundant element – global reserves are estimated at eight million tonnes compared with annual production of around 30,000 tonnes – why does it matter? The answer, he says, is because while we can extract helium easily and economically from natural gas, once it is vented to the atmosphere we cannot.

The long-term problem is venting – the journey of helium from the ground to the atmosphere – and that long-term problem is different from the things that cause supply-side crises,” Nuttall explains. “Helium is very different to other finite resources, because if we don’t use it today it isn’t there for tomorrow. It stays mingled with natural gas and ends up in atmosphere. So anything that’s about a simplistic attempt to reduce our demand for helium isn’t sufficient because the helium is still on a journey with natural gas from the ground to the atmosphere. It needs cleverer interventions than simply reducing demand.”

Zhiming Cai, a former PhD student supervised by Nuttall in the period 2005-2009, used a technique known as system dynamics to unpick the complex of factors affecting helium supply. “Cambridge Judge Business School has a strong interest in system dynamics, which was established 60 years ago and pioneered by Jay Forrester at MIT. In the 1950s and 60s there was an interest in complex socio-technical systems which involved lots of feedback loops and time delays, something system dynamics is very good at,” he says.

Cai’s PhD research used this approach to focus on the supply side of the helium industry, discovering that growth in high-tech sectors of the economy is one of the most important parameters in future supply of helium. This helium-modelling project grew into a conference, convened in Cambridge in 2009, on the Future for Helium, which in turn led to the book, The Future of Helium.

All three have led Nuttall, Clarke and Glowacki to argue that the best way of conserving this most unusual of resources is to establish an International Helium Agency. “We think it’s now time for an international body to understand the issues sensibly, to offer strategic recommendations and even require actions of its members,” Nuttall says. In the book The Future of Helium, Ralph Scurlock and Art Francis posit another framework by which helium planning might be internationalised.

Setting out their case in Nature, they explain the world is not running out of helium. Vast amounts remain underground combined with natural gas. Once used, helium is not destroyed but simply enters the atmosphere, which in containing around 3.8 billion tonnes of the gas is humanity’s largest helium resource.

But, they warn: “If we squander our richer geological resources, we will be forced to invoke costly or volume-limited air separation techniques for those applications for which helium is essential. Helium from air represents a backstop, but it is one we should not rely on. The key to avoiding such a scenario is better husbandry of our precious existing geological helium resources.”

“The expansion of the global natural gas industry without due regard to the management of helium venting is the true helium problem.” They suggest a process led by governments. “We propose that the time has come for the world, or at least members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, to consider establishing a global oversight body.” Scurlock and Francis have suggested a more business-led approach based on an International Helium Council and a World Helium Bank.

An International Helium Agency could be of benefit in times of perceived crisis, but more importantly it could address the longer-term and more fundamental issues facing the supply and demand of this most precious element.”