Australian scientists are working on new methods to recover helium as demand for the non-renewable resource grows in high-tech industries.
At present, the US produces almost 86 percent of the global supply of helium, driven by the US Federal Helium Reserve in Texas. The US Government began stockpiling helium during the first World War, and since then has been selling it cheaply, effectively distorting its market value. That program is now due to end, with the cost of helium expected to rise dramatically in coming years.
“We are going to see helium rationing coming in the very near future. It already exists in the scientific market today,” said Brent McInnes, director of the John de Laeter Centre for Isotope Research at Curtin University.
McInnes said helium, which is used in semiconducters, lasers, fibre optics and more recently quantum computing, is not going to run out, but it would be treated much more like a commodity in the future, with a market price that reflects its scarcity.
“This is going to see very hard decisions to make about whether it goes to medical research or experimental science or whether it goes to the high tech industry, so we had better start thinking about how that rationing is going to take place.”
McInnes said high-tech industries in China would in the future be a huge purchaser of helium, and in response the market would begin to seek out natural reservoirs that have a high concentration of the gas.
“There’s a lot of natural gas fields in Australia which we don’t actually know what the helium concentrations are, so there’s plenty of room for finding those deposits of natural gas which could be exploited and which have high helium concentrations.”
Gas company BOC runs one of only 14 helium processing plants around the world with its facility in Darwin, but McInnes said teething problems with the facility meant Australia was still dependent on US gas supply.
In the meantime, researchers at Macquarie University and the CSIRO have switched on a liquid helium recovery system for use in the health sector with helium-dependent Magnetoencephalography (MEG) systems.
A helium recovery system is already in place at the University of New South Wales’ Centre for Quantum Computation.
“Helium…too often is just allowed to be boiled off and lost,” said CSIRO materials, science and engineering chief Cathy Foley.
She said the system CSIRO had developed allowed researchers to recover about 90-95 percent of the helium that would typically be lost during use in modern health applications.