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No one taking helium shortage lightly

TOKYO -- A global shortage of helium gas has ramifications that go far beyond spoiling the fun of party balloons.

High-temperature superconductors do not need cooling with liquid helium, since liquid nitrogen is cold enough to make them work. In the laboratory of Kyoto University associate professor Itsuhiro Kakeya, the superconductors are used to study electromagnetic waves.

     Helium is a precious resource obtained as a byproduct from natural gas processing, and its uses range from the manufacture of semiconductors to the cooling of the superconducting magnets for MRI medical imaging.

     But the supply situation has worsened in recent years, partly because production plants are aging, and partly because the U.S. -- the world's largest supplier -- has turned its focus to fracking for shale gas, which contains relatively little helium.

     Add to that the growing demand in emerging economies of Asia and elsewhere, and there is a real possibility that helium supplies will run dry if nothing is done. In Japan, gas and other companies, as well as research institutions, have begun addressing the situation.

No Mickey Mouse problem      

Global supplies of helium became so tight at the end of 2012 that Japan's gas companies depleted their reserves and the nation faced a "helium crisis." Unable to obtain the substance, factories went offline, research institutions turned off their nuclear magnetic resonance machines, and even the public felt the pinch as Tokyo Disneyland halted the sale of helium balloons.

     Helium is the second-lightest element next to hydrogen and it has the lowest boiling point, turning from a liquid to a gas at a frigid minus 269 C. Most applications of superconducting materials depend on liquid helium to achieve the zero electrical resistance of a superconductor. For example, helium will be used to cool the superconducting magnets on the maglev trains of the Chuo Shinkansen, which is scheduled to begin service in Japan in 2027. It is used in the health field for MRI medical imaging machines and in a broad range of industrial applications, including the manufacture of optical fibers and semiconductor devices. It is also used in blimps and balloons.

     Only six countries produce helium. The short list includes Russia, Qatar and the U.S., which alone produces roughly 80% of the world's commercial-grade helium gas and holds around one-third of the global stockpile. But its reserves may be depleted before 2020.

     Prices for helium have tripled over the past decade and are still rising. One reason is that helium is not readily obtainable from either shale gas or the methane hydrates that might become a future energy resource. Also spurring the price increases is the U.S. decision this year to gradually shift to an auction system to sell off its reserves.

     Japanese gas and energy company Iwatani is taking steps to reduce its dependence on U.S. supplies of helium, which company President Masao Nomura considers one of the three main pillars of its business, along with liquefied petroleum gas and hydrogen gas. In August 2013, Iwatani began importing helium from Qatar for supply to the Japanese domestic market.

     Taiyo Nippon Sanso, another leading Japanese maker of industrial gases, has acquired interests in a helium project in Russia with plans to begin production there in 2018. And it has established a joint venture in the U.S. to expand its upstream business with helium production.

Panic time?

With demand now also coming from such nations as China and South Korea, the scramble to gain access to this scarce and precious gas is becoming frantic.

     The Japanese government has also stepped into the picture. Last year it launched investigative hearings for domestic companies and began subsidizing the development of advanced technologies related to helium. In another example, the joint statement from the Japan-Qatar summit in August 2013 included specific wording that reaffirmed support for Japanese companies participating in helium projects in the Mideast country.

     Meanwhile, research institutions and private companies in various sectors are working hard to conquer the problems associated with helium shortages.

     For example, Tokyo-based JEOL Resonance has begun marketing the world's first instrument for nuclear magnetic resonance machines that does not require liquid helium refills. Inquiries have been particularly strong from users without stable supplies of helium in emerging Asian economies.

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