Qatar Conflict Highlights Vulnerability of Helium Supply

Shortages affect industries ranging from rocketry to medicine
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 10, 2017 3:52 PM CDT
Qatar Conflict Highlights Vulnerability of Helium Supply
A zeppelin NT is tanked with helium in the hangar of Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei GmbH in Friedrichshafen, Germany.   (AP Photo/Felix Kaestle)

The conflict brewing in the Middle East between Qatar and neighboring countries has had an odd consequence: a sudden drop in global helium availability. The Atlantic reports Qatar manufactures 25% of the world’s helium supply, making it the second largest producer after the US. But a shipping issue has arisen: Qatar typically sends its supplies of helium by land through Saudi Arabia to a port in United Arab Emirates. When the conflict began heating up, a blockade brought shipping to a standstill. And with nowhere for its helium supply to go, Qatar ceased production of the gas on June 13. Qatar picked up production again in early July, but the political crisis continues, and an industry expert tells the Atlantic the shipping route will now, with more difficultly, likely pass through Oman.

"The thing this really highlights is that the helium supply chain, even though there’s ample supply when everything is running, is inflexible and fragile,” says industry consultant Phil Kornbluth. Helium’s unique properties make it essential in science, medical, and engineering fields. Along with enabling birthday party balloons to float, the gas is needed in the production of medical equipment like MRI machines and, per IFL Science, for technologies like supersonic wind tunnels, telescopes, and the Large Hadron Collider. While the Atlantic reports that past shortages have taught labs to conserve helium, recycling the gas may be a stronger future solution. In a CNN op-ed, physicist Dr. Don Lincoln writes that further developing “helium recapture technologies” is essential to averting a supply crisis in the future. (A giant helium field was found in 2016.)

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