Helium, a noble gas, is the second lightest gas after hydrogen. It does not react with other chemicals or elements. As helium is lighter than air, it is typically extracted from natural gas and liquid natural gas plants. The global demand for helium is projected to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 3-4 percent during 2019–2024, mainly driven by its increasing demand in diverse and emerging applications such as computer hard drives and hybrid air vehicles. Moreover, traditionally, about 20-22 percent of the total helium demand originates from MRI, followed by about 16-18 percent in other cryogenic experiments. It is also widely used in other applications such as balloons, weldings, semiconductors, optical fibers, leak detection, lifting and other industries.
Currently, helium’s global demand is estimated at 6 bcf annually, which is equivalent to $6 billion. The U.S. is the major producer, accounting for about 55-58 percent of the global production share, followed by Qatar with a share of 32 percent. These two countries contribute about 87-90 percent of the global helium production. Other countries such as Algeria, Australia, Russia, Poland and Canada each contribute about 1-2 percent of the rest. Globally, only about 14 liquid helium plants are operating in several countries. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the major agency that manages helium reserves.
History of Helium Shortage
The global helium market has been witnessing supply constraints at regular intervals for more than a decade. The first worldwide helium shortage occurred in 2006 due to the shutdown of production plants for maintenance. Similarly, a severe shortage was once again experienced during 2011–2013 due to production shortages and declining demand from other end-user industries, as about 70-80 percent of the total helium was allocated to MRI and NMR applications. Meanwhile, other end-user industries either hunted for helium substitutes such as hydrogen, or opted for helium recyclability. However, with Qatar Helium II and other new plants from Algeria and the U.S. coming onstream, the supply situation improved, leading to increased supplies and a decline in prices.
Qatar Embargo in 2017 and the Continued Shortage Since
The helium market witnessed another tight supply situation in June 2017, when the Saudi-led embargo of Qatar restricted helium movement out of Qatar to other markets, which led to logistical challenges and the temporary shutdown of its two plants – Qatar I and II. Although they remained shut for only a few weeks, it reduced the global helium production by about 30 percent, restricting supply. This impacted markets for several months. However, the supply-demand balance recovered marginally between Q4, 2017 and Q1, 2018, as market participants observed a drop in helium demand and an improvement in supply.
However, the recovery was short-lived, and the helium shortage crisis returned in February 2018 due to several factors such as maintenance shutdowns, BLM’s continued allocation of crude helium to contract customers, etc. However, this time, the buyer market did not witness adverse implications of the helium shortage equally across markets, as some suppliers continued to allocate supply to a few buyers and others continued to fulfil demands of few customers. However, the shortage led to a significant price increase by more than 100 percent in 2018.
The 2019 Outlook
Going forward, the market is anticipated to remain tight for the rest of 2019. The persistent tight supply is due to the reduction of production capacity, coupled with the ongoing inventory depletion of crude helium, which contracted the deliverable capacity to the helium refinery companies over time. Also, low production in other countries due to lack of feed gas and delays in new projects coming onstream will likely worsen the supply situation and escalate prices. Many producers have already announced price increases of 35-40 percent beginning February 2019. From the demand standpoint, the helium market is anticipated to observe a steady rise, especially from the Chinese electronics industry.
The shortage is anticipated to reduce on the back of newer capacities. Qatar’s Helium 3 project will contribute 425 MMscf annually by mid-2020 or 2021. Similarly, Gazprom’s Amur Project in Eastern Siberia is an emerging helium entrant that will contribute toward an improvement in the supply situation. Further, the demand is expected to subside owing to the global economic slowdown, reversing the shortage cycle by 2020–2021.