Annual global production of helium was nearly 175 million cubic meters last year, the US Geological Survey said, but demand is forecast to rise to more than 300 million cubic meters by 2030.
“Even if the reserve didn’t go offline, things aren’t good at the moment. There is definitely around a 3 percent shortage. Everything produced is being snapped up,” said Richard Clarke, resources consultant and former helium specialist at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxford.
The US reserve is important because other countries’ supplies, such as Qatar, Russia and Algeria, are still too erratic or not large enough to cover the US shortfall.
Qatar could potentially supply about 20 to 25 percent of world helium when its two large liquefaction plants reach full capacity. Air Liquide started up a 38 million cubic meters per year plant last month, but it is not yet operating at full potential.
Algeria already supplies 10 to 15 percent of global helium, but could potentially provide more if it recovered helium from natural gas export pipelines to southern Europe.
Russia accounts for about 3.6 percent of global helium production, according to Ernst & Young, but it needs to build a lot of gas infrastructure in Siberia to enable its output to equal that of the US by 2022 to 2025.
“October 7 is D-day for helium,” Clarke said. “It may be that US President [Barack] Obama has to pass a continuing resolution to keep operations going.”