Helium for balloons but none for my NMR

Our reserves of helium are finite and we’re running out. This may come as a mild disappointment to children everywhere but its really bad news for science.

My (and everyone else’s) NMR machines use liquid helium (at 3 Kelvin) as the coolant for their superconducting magnets. The same goes for MRI scanners and those cathedrals of science the particle accelerators like the LHC. And right now there’s a world wide shortage of helium which means that we may have to decommission some of our NMRs. Re-commissioning them will then cost 10s of thousands of dollars, plus it would require huge amounts of liquid helium to cool them down again.

We fill these instruments with liquid helium regularly, replacing the stuff that’s boiled off. The thing is that once that helium has evaporated off and into the atmosphere its gone. There’s no getting is back. So why don’t we bother collecting the boiled off helium? All we’d need to do is stick a balloon on top of the NMR machine, then a simple compressor could be used to turn it back into a liquid.

We don’t bother with this simple bit of recycling because there’s no immediate economic imperative. But hang on, didn’t I just say the reserves are limited, so surely helium is really expensive? Well it aught to be. According to Professor Robert Richardson, who won the Nobel physic prize in 1996 for his research on helium, a helium party balloon should cost $100. Instead they cost about 50 cents. The reason helium is sold well below its ‘real’ value is because of an odd law passed by the US congress in the 1996. Robin McKie explained some background in The Observer newspaper last month.

 In the 1920s the US decided helium would be a strategic resource. It realised that air power would be crucial in future wars, and assumed that these would be fought by airships that would use helium to float.

Then to cut costs in 1996 Congress passed a law mandating the U.S. helium reserve (the largest in the world by some way) be sold off by 2015, irrespective of market price. They set in stone the amount of helium that needed to be sold and so ever since they have been dumping it on the market.

This is a long term issue, but it doesn’t explain the immediate shortage. The problem here, as far as I can gather because our suppliers (BOC) aren’t telling us much, is that several of the worlds helium refineries are out of action. That, at least, was the case 10 months ago according to gasworld.  And they don’t expect things to improve until a new plant comes on line in 2013.

In the meantime it looks like there’s going to be a long queue for the remaining NMR machine.

25th April UPDATE :

Here’s the latest on the helium situation from BOC in the UK.



  1. We just had this conversation in our department meeting this week. Our He contract expires this summer and the cost of the new contract is going to add 12K-20K to our department budget.

    I’m imagining the frenzy when He becomes really scarce. Overdramatic PIs running through birthday parties flailing around and slapping balloons out of 12 year old’s hands. Stunned look on parents’ faces as he runs down the street bear hugging 12 balloons, sport jacket flapping in the wind… Let’s make a movie.

    • The price of helium and its availability is indeed (and may remain for a while) an issue. Companies like Quantum Technology of Canada can design and implement solutions to dramatically reduce the He consumption. Please consult our website.


      Quantum Technology

  2. It might come to that! But recon I’ll need to mug about 200 balloon clutching children a day to keep my NMR topped up.

    However, making my get away should be easy… Oh, that would make a good final scene for the movie.

    • Think about how many NMRs will have to be quenched as a result of the filming of the documentary Up. What is the media teaching children these days?!

  3. The value of Helium can only go up! Who knows how far it will rise?

  4. Stewie Griffin says:

    Haha. The comments so far have been a real gas!

  5. I’m sorry but I don’t understand why a speculator doesn’t buy it up ASAP (or on the first of every cycle when it goes on sale) and turn around to re-sell. The free market might be work miracles in social welfare, but certainly a resource that is known to be scarce is an investment opportunity?

    Couldn’t some well placed university consortium buy this stuff up to re-sell?

    • I don’t think its quite as simple as that. There’s a massive amount of infrastructure needed to store and deliver helium. So its not that easy to buy it up then re-sell later.

  6. That you referred to your NMR as a machine made me sad.

  7. Periodic videos have a great explanation of He recycling – it’s fairly standard practice at European facilities now, but it’s not exactly a simple thing to do.

    However, when the price of He goes up, the economics quickly balance out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZkMQkHGj1s

  8. It’s not that easy to compress it back to a liquid!

    Our gas supplier (Matheson) is increasing the price on He. I think it would indeed be a good investment. If push ever came to shove, MRIs first and NMRs second methinks. Need some better superconductors, don’t we?

  9. Interesting comments to something that I guess we all know is that He is so light it floats away into outer space. But I recall when I was a post doc at the Kamerlingh Onnes labs in Leiden (1974). Recall Kamerlingh Onnes was the first person to liquefy He (in 1903 I think). Now in that building they had extensive He recovery systems and recycled it all. Indeed the system was complicated, but my colleagues said then exactly what Mark is saying here: it is a precious resource.

  10. Bunsen Honeydew says:

    What materials are typically used in the superconducting magnets of today’s NMR spectrometers? Do we have any materials that are superconductors at 20 K available at reasonable cost? Then we could use liquid hydrogen, which is an essentially renewable resource.

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