University of Alberta finds Calgary-based benefactor to help with helium shortage

University of Alberta research equipment that was in danger of being damaged due to a global helium shortage has been saved, at least in the short term.

Liquid helium is needed to keep superconducting magnets in instruments, such as mass spectrometers and MRI machines, at extremely low temperatures.

Ryan McKay, facilities manager in charge of specialist equipment, said the university expects to get only about 75% of the supply needed this year.

“Superconducting magnets don’t work that way,” he said. “We need a constant supply.”

A few months ago, McKay began looking for solutions far and wide. He got in touch with Calgary-based North American Helium.

The company has mobilized to help maintain the delivery of helium to some twenty Canadian educational research establishments, with a volume equivalent to approximately three months’ supply.

The company has no distribution capabilities, said North American Helium President Marlon McDougall, so it must sell helium directly to distributors with an agreement that it will reach institutions.

The U of A has more than 20 superconducting magnets, each with an estimated value of $1 million. The aid means the university doesn’t “have to choose which quarter of them dies,” McKay said.

“I haven’t even been able to begin to calculate how much infrastructure money has been saved across Canada.”

Need for domestic helium

The situation demonstrates the need for Canada to further develop its domestic helium production, from extraction to delivery, McKay said.

Alberta introduced a new helium royalty structure two years ago, with the aim of stimulating exploration and production.

Saskatchewan is positioning itself to be a leader in helium production. aiming to supply 10% of the global market by 2030.

North American Helium currently operates facilities in Saskatchewan, including a $32 million purification plant in Battle Creek, Saskatchewan, which the company says is the largest helium production facility in Canada.

North American Helium’s largest helium production facility is located near Battle Creek, Saskatchewan. (Submitted by North American Helium)

As a Canadian company, North American Helium was motivated to do what it could, McDougall said.

“It was a problem in Canada and I think the solutions in Canada are good things,” he said.

McDougall hopes to expand operations in the near future, but he said there remains “a significant gap” between supply and demand.

Global shortage

Helium supply is a closely related market. The top three producers are the United States, Algeria and Qatar.

The helium supply chain, like other commodities, has been an ongoing issue throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, said Phil Kornbluth, president of Kornbluth Helium Consulting.

But 2022 brought other unexpected disruptions, including the closure of a major purification plant in Texas over safety concerns. The opening of a large factory in Russia has also been delayed.

“This year was supposed to be a year where the market went from a tight supply to a more abundant supply,” Kornbluth said.

He predicts that there may be some relief on the horizon due to several developments, such as declining demand from Chinese industries under the COVID-19 lockdown, and the Texas facility coming back online. in the near future.

“Some of the negative things that caused the shortage should go away,” Kornbluth said.

“That doesn’t mean the shortage is over, but it should be less severe in the second half. [of the year].”