The helium shutoff -- a side effect of the Qatar confrontation

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Story highlights

  • Don Lincoln: The Gulf diplomatic crisis poses a possible threat to scientific research
  • Helium is a very delicate, nonrenewable resource. Once it's gone, it's gone, he writes

Dr. Don Lincoln is a senior physicist at Fermilab and does research using the Large Hadron Collider. He has written numerous books including "The Large Hadron Collider: The Extraordinary Story of the Higgs Boson and Other Things That Will Blow Your Mind," and produces a series of science education videos. In collaboration with The Great Courses company, he recently released a video course about the Theory of Everything. Follow him on Facebook. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)The recent diplomatic dustup between Qatar and many other Gulf nations caused some nervousness for some of the world's most cutting edge scientists.

Among recalled ambassadors, closed borders and massive disruptions on travel and shipping, the diplomatic crisis highlighted the world's vulnerability to cutoffs in the supply of helium, since Qatar is the world's second-biggest producer of the vital substance, after the United States. Although the helium aspect of this diplomatic imbroglio has been resolved, it highlights the way in which international diplomacy can impact scientific research.
While most people might think of helium as simply being the gas that is used for balloons at children's birthday parties, it is actually a critical ingredient for some of the highest technologies on Earth.
    Don Lincoln
    It is used in cryogenic environments, like the operation of medical MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) spectrometers. It is used to purge and pressurize containers made of materials that cannot withstand chemical interactions.
    It is used to provide controlled environments for the manufacture of solid-state computer chips. And it is used in tungsten gas welding for such metals as aluminum and copper, which would experience much weaker welds if they were contaminated by exposure to oxygen.
    Helium is chemically inert and unique in its ability to remain liquid at temperatures below -450 F (-269 C). It is found in air at low concentrations (about five parts per million) -- a concentration that does not economically allow for easy extraction.
    In fact, helium is mostly obtained from natural gas deposits, like the South Pars/North Dome field, which is a natural gas condensate field shared by Iran and Qatar. Qatar stopped helium production on June 13 and only resumed operations on July 2. Had production not been resumed, the impact on scientific research could have been quite worrisome.
    Helium is produced in radioactive alpha decay of minerals bearing either uranium or thorium, both of which are radioactive elements. Alpha decay is the emission of the nucleus of a helium atom. The same sort of geological processes that trap natural gas underground will also trap helium. The concentrations of helium in natural gas deposits vary widely, ranging from a few parts per million to as much as 7% at a small gas field located in New Mexico.
    Qatar, with an area smaller than that of Connecticut, produces 25% of the world's helium and the recent diplomatic crisis strongly reduced its ability to ship this valuable commodity.
    While the country can still ship natural gas via special facilities near Ras Laffan Industrial City in the north part of the country, helium is normally shipped overland through Saudi Arabia to the Jebel Ali port in the United Arab Emirates. With this shipping route blocked, the helium liquefication facilities inside Qatar were effectively shut down on June 13.
    The necessary helium shipping containers are essentially very large thermos bottles, which eventually warm up when they are emptied. Since the containers were located at the customer's site and not quickly returned to the producer's facility, they warmed and were easily contaminated with air. At liquid helium temperatures, more common gasses are frozen solid; thus a small contamination by ordinary air can form solid blockages in helium transfer pipes. Restarting the cooling plant and reconditioning shipping containers is a very delicate and time-consuming business.
    The world's scientific and technical community needs reliable helium supplies and each facility usually stores locally only a few weeks' worth of liquid helium consumption. However, once their reserves are depleted, they become very concerned about how long a reduction in production caused by disruptions like this blockade of Qatar is going to last.
    When the helium supply becomes very scarce, this hits medical and scientific users particularly hard. Helium rationing has no system for prioritization; medical facilities do not get special access to the remaining reserves. What drives the distribution in a rationing environment is individual contracts. Previous helium production reductions saw some facilities having their supply reduced by half.
    The vulnerability of the world's helium supply is not a new thing. The United States formed an enormous helium reserve in 1925 just outside Amarillo, Texas, in part to ward off situations exactly like those caused by the Qatar blockade. However, in 1996, financial and political pressures led the US government to direct that the helium reserve be sold on the open market by 2006. The reduction of the reserve led to market forces driving the prices of this critical element, further leading to periodic shortages for the scientific community.
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    So, what should we do to avert future crises like that posed by the Qatar blockade? The first is to continue to further develop existing helium recapture technologies. Although these technologies exist, many existing facilities simply use helium to cool something or as part of their production process and then vent the helium gas to the atmosphere.
    Helium's inertness makes this safe, but it is wasteful. If more companies and laboratories would capture the gas and liquefy it, they could recapture the cost of the capture facilities in just a few years. It would also guard against vulnerabilities to shortages caused by geopolitical problems like the Qatar diplomatic crisis.
    And, although the world's helium reserves have not been depleted, it is a nonrenewable resource. When it's gone, it's gone. That's true of many substances, but with helium, things are different. There is no known substance that can replace it.