“Everytime you see a child with a helium balloon, imagine somebody not being able to have an MRI scan that they desperately needed,” says Tom Welton, Professor of Sustainable Chemistry at Imperial College.
As the professor warns that the helium shortage may soon impact the pharmaceutical industry, contract research organization Melbourn Scientific, based in Melbourn Herts, is already responding.
“Helium is truly a finite resource”, Prof. Welton continues. “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’ 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 percent of the world’s helium comes for the US National Helium Reserve which extracts the gas from under 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.
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 (for example 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 uncertainity 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 does have 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. Hydrogen 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.
Westcott continues; “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. 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 gasses could be used in a well-controlled environment, 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 real evil, but I’m not far off.”