14th August 2019
Helium prices continue to spike following yet another helium shortage, the third in 14 years.
Lab Gas Price Bulletin August 2019
The 2019 auction of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management peaked at $279.95 per million standard cubic feet for crude helium prices, approximately a 135% increase from the previous year.
Back in 1996, helium was not considered a strategic resource and as a result, the U.S. government began selling its helium holding at extremely low prices. Consequently, the gas market was flooded with highly affordable helium.
Due to this decrease in demand for helium gas, it was no longer lucrative for oil extraction companies to source helium during the process of obtaining natural gas. This was another contributory factor, along with the scarcity of the gas, leading to today’s shortage.
Last month, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) held the annual storage contract holder’s meeting to discuss its disposal of helium assets. All of BLM’s helium assets will be transferred to private companies by 30th September 2021, after a bidding for the operation. It has long been public knowledge that the clock is ticking for the BLM – the world’s largest helium reserve – driving a new outlook on helium business in 2021.
With all of these issues relating to helium, and with the gas being very expensive to extract, the future of the helium supply chain remains unclear. The uncertainty looming over the helium shortage crisis continues to have a knock-on effect on numerous industries requiring access to helium to be able to provide their services.
Notably critical in the field of MRI scanners, helium is also an important gas in analytical chemistry, serving as a carrier gas for gas chromatography thanks to its unique inert properties as a non-reactive gas. The diminishing reserves of helium are causing major disruptions across analytical research laboratories as labs face increased waiting times to restock current supplies and, in some extreme cases, are being refused supply altogether, particularly when requesting new helium supply. Gas chromatographers require helium gas for sample analysis which is traditionally purchased via a gas cylinder.
With the declining availability and soaring prices, finding an alternative to helium is top priority for gas chromatography users. The sustained concerns over helium prices and the availability of the gas are seeing helium rule itself out as a long-term carrier gas option. For this reason, an increasing number of laboratories are now switching to a nitrogen generator and hydrogen generator as a carrier gas supply, as more and more gas chromatography methods can now use nitrogen or hydrogen.
The benefits of using a nitrogen generator or hydrogen generator for gas chromatography are numerous. With an on-site nitrogen generator or hydrogen generator, laboratory budgets are no longer exposed to the varying cylinder prices, as laboratories are able to produce their own gas, on demand. Costs for cylinder logistics for repeated deliveries and rental are no longer an issue either, as a laboratory gas generator is available to laboratory staff 24/7.
When it comes to safety, nitrogen and hydrogen generators store very low volumes of gas, thereby reducing safety risks to the bare minimum, offering a safe alternative to a highly pressurized gas cylinder.
In terms of application in gas chromatography, unlike gas cylinders, which can vary in purity between cylinders or from one use to another, laboratories using a nitrogen generator or a hydrogen generator are guaranteed to have consistent purity levels throughout their analyses.
In an effort to avoid contamination of samples, laboratories using cylinder gas are advised to dispose of 10% of the remaining cylinder gas. This remaining gas normally consists of high levels of impurity and cannot be used for analysis without interfering with the sample, an additional cost to gas gone to waste.
The increasing helium prices coupled with the inconvenience of tying finances to bulk supply of gas are pushing gas chromatography users to the limit. As a consequence, the advantages of nitrogen generators and hydrogen generators over helium bulk supply are becoming more prominent, as more laboratories are investing in a laboratory-grade generator for cost savings, safety and reliability.
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