Move over peak oil, there’s a new peak in town…peak helium. In case you
haven’t heard, the world’s largest helium reserve, located around Amarillo Texas, is expected to run out within the next 8 years. Ironically, it’s one of the 2 most abundant elements in the known universe, yet it’s
very rare here on earth. Much like oil, lack of supply means much higher prices are on their way: the price of helium has risen 50% in the past year.
When you first think of helium, you probably think of balloons. While they do account for a significant portion of the helium usage, estimated at 8%, helium has many other uses within the science, space, medical, technology, and welding fields to name a few. Overall, a shortage has some potentially far reaching ramifications. As an example, in 1998 about 18.% of the supply of helium was used for welding. I haven’t been able to find any recent statistics but let’s assume that global usage has increased much like other raw materials. It’s probably not too far off to say that 1/5th of all helium is now used for welding. As you can see, the welding industry is a very large consumer of helium.
The main use of helium in the welding field is as a shielding gas. It’s used in the GMAW, GTAW, and FCAW welding processes, primarily for alloys of aluminum and stainless steel. Helium provides a hotter arc, allowing for deeper penetration, and is often used on thicker sections of metal. It can also be used as a shielding gas for some of the more exotic metals like titanium. It should be noted that while it can be used on mild steel it rarely is due to the cost.
While this is problematic, there’s no need to worry about the helium supply disappearing overnight. There are deposits in other countries; Russia, Algeria, China and Qatar all have fairly large reserves. The problem is that as of yet, they’re under-utilized and not expected to come to market for a few years. Another potential source is air extraction. So far though, it’s cost prohibitive.
Even though helium should still be available for years to come, the days of cheap and readily accessible helium are gone. Hopefully the cost of air extraction will come down to an affordable level, although the more likely scenario is that the price of helium will rise to the point where it becomes feasible to produce it this way. One potential silver lining to all of this is that it may motivate industry to develop new technologies and processes that will overcome the helium shortage problems.