A finite resource: helium

Published: 10-Dec-2012

Although helium may be the second most abundant element in the universe, here on earth this noble gas is rare and precious. In the pharmaceutical industry helium is used for cryogenic cooling of magnets used for MRI and in gas chromatography

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Helium is invisible, yet used widely by the pharmaceutical community. Professor Tom Welton, Imperial College London, and Steve Westcott, Melbourn Scientific, warn of the implications of an impending helium shortage.

Every time you see a child with a helium balloon, imagine somebody not being able to have an MRI scan that they desperately need. According to Tom Welton, professor of Sustainable Chemistry, Imperial College London, this is a real possibility and the professor warns that the helium shortage may soon affect the pharmaceutical industry. Contract research organisation Melbourn Scientific, based in Melbourn, Herts, UK, is already responding.

‘Helium is truly a finite resource,’ Welton says. ‘With increasing demand from places like China, supply cannot keep up. We have already been warned that availability is patchy and we may not always be able to have our usual amount.’

According to the Royal Society of Chemistry report ‘Endangered Elements’,1 although helium may be the second most abundant element in the universe, here on earth this noble gas is rare and precious. It comes from the natural breakdown of uranium and as a by-product from natural gas exploitation.

Thirty per cent of the world’s helium comes from the US National Helium Reserve, which extracts the gas from underneath the American Great Plains. However, since 1995 the US government has been selling its reserves of gas at bargain prices and consumption has increased worldwide, with applications including airport scanners and wind turbines.

At current rates the world could run out of helium in 25 years, plus or minus five years

Robert Richardson, the Nobel laureate who discovered liquid helium’s superfluid properties, estimates that at current rates ‘the world would run out in 25 years, plus or minus five years’.

In the pharmaceutical industry the gas is used for cryogenic cooling (e.g. super cooling of magnets used for MRI) and is widely used for gas chromatography in pharmaceutical analysis.

Steve Westcott, ceo of Melbourn Scientific, has been developing a response to the potential risk of rising prices and a world shortage.

‘Gas chromatography uses helium as a carrier gas as it provides good separations, it is inert and until recently has been readily available. However, the cost and uncertainty of supply has meant that we have been considering how to “future-proof” our client’s methods.

‘Hydrogen and nitrogen are alternatives to helium and more sustainable. Technically speaking hydrogen is a superior carrier gas for the majority of applications in gas chromatography, giving greater speed with no loss of separation power. This has been known for many years, yet due to the potential safety concerns helium has remained the gas of choice.’

Hydrogen in particular has a number of benefits. Its optimum efficiency, which is similar to that of helium, is achieved at higher linear flow rates, allowing shorter run times and faster throughput for the laboratory. It is also cheaper and more readily available.

Hydrogen is already used within laboratories for gas chromatographic detectors and is therefore already available at the required point of use.

As a result, laboratories such as Melbourn Scientific are used to managing the safety issues and have established protocols accordingly.

The cost of helium will inevitably soar as resources diminish

‘The cost of helium will inevitably soar as resources diminish. In itself, this is not the main issue as far as the pharmaceutical industry is concerned but the potential interruption to supplies certainly will be,’ says Westcott. ‘Disruption of supplies could have disastrous effects to the smooth running of the manufacturing process. To avoid the issues around uncertain supply and the significantly increased costs of helium, it is recommended that the move to hydrogen for gas chromatographic methods should take place as soon as possible.’

Professor Welton agrees: ‘For gas chromatography other carrier gases could be used in a well-controlled environment, and swapping to alternatives should be considered.

‘However, for MRI machines, currently I do not see that there is any alternative to helium, as there is no other coolant that can go down to those temperatures.

‘Here’s where I start my rant about helium balloons. Helium balloons really are as bad as it gets for squandering this resource. I’m probably going a bit far saying that they’re really evil, but I’m not far off.’


1. http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/Issues/2011/January/CriticalThinking.asp last accessed 14.11.2012

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