U.S. Sells its Helium Stockpile to Highest Bidder, Potentially Impacting a Wide Array of Industries

2024-01-28 16:30:52

Back in 2022, I wrote that Russia had limited exports of noble gases that are critical to making semiconductor chips, at least until the end of 2022.

Those noble gases included helium, which is essential for semiconductor chip manufacturing and used in specialty medical equipment (magnetic resonance imaging/MRI machines).

It looks like we may soon have a self-induced shortage of this important resource, which is worrying many in a wide array of industries.

Soumi Saha, a senior vice-president of Premier Inc. said an existing helium supply shortage may get worse as regulatory and logistical issues could cause a temporary shutdown of the existing federal supply while it transitions to private ownership.

“We are stressing about this shortage. From a health care perspective, MRI machines are the No. 1 concern,” Saha said.

Premier Inc. contracts with helium suppliers to supply hospitals.

The massive federal stockpile of helium spans three states and about 6 billion cubic feet of helium is held underground in the Bush Dome.

A 1996 law — the Helium Privatization Act of 1996 — forced the sale of nearly all the 30 billion cubic feet of helium held in the Bush Dome and pegged the cost not at market rates, but at the annual inflation rate.

Private companies bought it and resold it at higher prices. The auction this week puts the remainder in private hands.

Information on the winning bidder of the auction hasn’t been publicly released; however, one firm has been identified as the potential new owner. And that new owner is going to face some engineering and regulatory hoops.

Once the deal is finalized, the buyer — which will likely be the highest bidder, the industrial gas company Messer — will claim some 425 miles of pipelines spanning Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma, plus about 1 billion cubic feet of the only element on Earth cold enough to make an MRI machine work.

…The facility spans three states, each with its own laws. The federal government didn’t need to reconcile state-specific rules, but a private buyer would, he said. Another issue is that helium must be enriched before it can be used, and a separate system is needed to do that. That enrichment system isn’t part of the federal reserve, but is privately owned by four private companies, including Messer; unlike the pipelines and helium itself, it wasn’t for sale.

“A new owner will need to create some sort of lease to use the enrichment unit, or build their own unit to enrich the helium,” Gottwald said. “There’s a whole host of issues that need to be resolved and the concern is, until they’re resolved, the system will need to shut down.”

This particular sale has been in the works for more than a decade. Congress first mandated it through the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 when Obama was in office.

Of all the elements, helium is the most stable; it will not burn or react with other elements. It has a wide array of uses, including those related to national defense and space exploration.

  • National defense applications include rocket engine testing, scientific balloons, surveillance craft, air-to-air missile guidance systems, and more.
  • Helium is used to cool thermographic cameras and equipment used by search and rescue teams and medical personnel to detect and monitor certain physiological processes.
  • Various industries use helium to detect gas leaks in their products.  Helium is a safe tracer gas because it is inert. Manufacturers of aerosol products, tires, refrigerators, fire extinguishers, air conditioners and other devices use helium to test seals before their products come to market.
  • Cutting edge space science and research requires helium.  NASA uses helium to keep hot gases and ultra-cold liquid fuel separated during lift-off of rockets.
  • Arc welding uses helium to create an inert gas shield.  Similarly, divers and others working under pressure can use a mix of helium and oxygen to create a safe artificial breathing atmosphere.
  • Helium is a protective gas in titanium and zirconium production and in growing silicon and germanium crystals.
  • Since helium doesn’t become radioactive, it is used as a cooling medium for nuclear reactors.
  • Cryogenics, superconductivity, laser pointers, supersonic wind tunnels, cardiopulmonary resuscitation pumps, monitoring blimps used by the Border Patrol, and liquid fuel rockets all require helium in either their manufacture or use.

A Biden administration official promises the flow of helium will not be impacted.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Interior Department, however, said the sale would not impact the helium supply, according to NBC News.

“Sale of the reserve to a private party, as Congressionally mandated by law, is not expected to meaningfully change the availability of helium.”

I am not comforted.

At this point, I will just be grateful if the new owner of all this helium has no ties to China, Russia or Iran.




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