Calling for the Establishment of Sustainable and Secure Canadian Helium Supply

OTTAWA, ON, June 2, 2023 /CNW/ – Global liquid helium supply disruptions are posing critical challenges in Canada, affecting the provision of essential medical services and detrimental to Canadian scientific research and industry. The Canadian Helium Users Group (CHUG), together with the Canadian Association of Medical Radiation Technologists (CAMRT) and the Canadian Association of Radiologists (CAR) are joining forces to advocate for the establishment of a sustainable and secure helium supply in Canada.

The impact of the helium supply shortage is particularly felt in healthcare. More than 2.3 million magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) examinations were conducted in Canada using 378 MRI scanners in 2019-2020. All of these scanners require helium to function, and without adequate supply must be shut down. For every machine that needs to be shut down, 240-350 examinations would be lost over the course of a two-week period, at a time when the system is already experiencing record backlogs and wait times. Furthermore, emergent patients would not have access to MR imaging, which would delay detection of disease and increase the proportion of patients presenting with more advanced disease. 

“Without an adequate supply of liquid helium, many MRI magnets located in Canadian healthcare institutions are at risk of a “quench”, which effectively shuts them down. This would lead to delays in early disease detection and diagnosis, added healthcare costs and ultimately compromise patient outcomes. Canada needs to invest in a sustainable national helium supply chain.” – Dr. Ania Kielar, President, CAR

“We should not be waiting for the time when MRI scanners are shut down due to a shortage of helium. Acting now, to implement the recommendations of this group will ensure the continuity of MRI imaging, so critical to the care of millions of people in Canada every year.” – Megan Brydon, President, CAMRT.

Helium is undeniably critical for life science, chemistry, engineering, and physics research programs. Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy used in these fields is also experiencing negative impacts from the helium supply shortage. A recent survey conducted by the CHUG found that 72% of facilities had difficulty procuring liquid helium within the last nine months. In addition, many labs have been subjected to unscheduled price increases, ranging from 25% to as much as 400%.

“Canada’s contribution to the global helium supply is only 1%, leaving Canadian consumers vulnerable to supply disruptions. Canada can establish a ‘Made in Canada’ helium production and distribution solution by investing in large-scale purification and liquefaction facilities. This would ensure a secure supply for healthcare, research, and industry. It would position Canada as a global leader in helium utilization, foster job creation, and technological innovation.” said Bob Berno, NMR Facility Manager at McMaster University and CHUG Representative

Helium is a precious, non-renewable resource, and establishing a national supply chain will mitigate the risk of ongoing and future global supply chain challenges and price fluctuations. Recently in Saskatchewan, several new sites have been developed for helium capture. North American Helium has built a system to purify the gas, then shipped it to the US for liquefication and distribution into the global market. However, Canada currently does not have an industrial-sized liquefication hub. The Government of Saskatchewan’s “Helium Action Plan: From Exploration to Exports” outlines an innovative approach to exploring, producing, processing, and exporting helium. Their goal is to have Saskatchewanproduce 10% of the world’s helium by 2030, which, if achieved, would meet Canadian helium needs and provide a surplus for export.

Today, the CHUG, CAMRT, and CAR Helium working group released its position entitled Establishing a Sustainable and Secure Canadian Helium Supply. The consensus position of the three groups provides background on helium supply, as well as recent supply challenges and offers the following recommendations:

  • That the federal government, working in collaboration with provincial governments and industry, expedites the development of a large-scale Canadian helium purification and liquefaction facility to complete a sustainable national helium supply chain.
  • That the federal government creates a funding mechanism so that laboratories and institutions can access funds to install helium recovery systems and create and/or optimize existing local reliquefication systems to promote environmental sustainability.
  • That the federal government adds helium to the list of urgent mineral shortages to be addressed within the federal budget.

We can safeguard critical healthcare services, drive innovation, and reduce our environmental impact by addressing the helium supply challenges with a ‘Made in Canada’ solution. CHUG, CAMRT, and CAR urge the federal government, industry stakeholders, and regulatory bodies to prioritize establishing a sustainable and secure Canadian helium supply.

SOURCE Canadian Association of Medical Radiation Technologists

For further information: Christopher Topham, CAMRT at (613) 234-0012 x 230 or ctopham@camrt.ca

https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/calling-for-the-establishment-of-sustainable-and-secure-canadian-helium-supply-812199940.html

First Helium signs helium supply deal with industrial gas major

May 25, 2023 Via Gasworld

Helium development and exploration company First Helium has agreed to sell 80% of its produced helium volumes from its Worsley Property in Alberta, Canada, to a major industrial gas supplier.

The long-term helium supply agreement signed by the two companies is worth up to $100m in potential revenue to First Helium over the first five years, depending on the pace of production.

First Helium will receive firm specified pricing for its helium volumes throughout the first five years, after which the agreement provides for price re-determination windows as triggered by either First Helium or the purchaser. A total term of 10 years has been agreed.

The purchaser will be obligated to take, or pay for, all helium volumes delivered, or made available for delivery by First Helium during the term of the agreement, subject to maximum monthly and annual volume quantities.

Ed Bereznicki, President and CEO of First Helium, said, “The take-or-pay and term nature of our sales arrangement, combined with the flexibility to sell up to 20% of our production on a potentially more lucrative ‘spot’ sales basis, will enable us to maximise the value of our helium asset for our investors.”

Bereznicki also notes that the finalisation of the deal will allow the company to proceed with the next steps in bringing its 15-25 helium well into production.

The deal is subject to maximum monthly and annual volume quantities, in accordance with a specified per unit volume pricing schedule.

In addition to announcing its signed helium supply deal, First Helium has also completed the necessary front end engineering design (FEED) study for its Worsley helium gas processing facility.

The company will now work to finalise production details and proceed with the equipment procurement process. First Helium is currently targeting late Q1 2024 for initial helium production and delivery at the Worsley plant.

https://www.gasworld.com/story/first-helium-signs-helium-supply-deal-with-industrial-gas-major/2123578.article/?origin=mobileSearch

Why The Global Helium Shortage May Be The World’s Next Medical Crisis

Nov 10, 2022 via Forbes

Imagine waking up one morning to learn that your mother is exhibiting slurred speech, difficulty understanding your words, and has weakness and numbness on one side of her body. Immediately recognizing that these are the cardinal signs and symptoms of a stroke, you rush her to the Emergency Room to get diagnosed and treated. To your dismay, the Emergency Physicians tell you they cannot confirm your suspicion of a stroke diagnosis in your mother because the MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine is non-operable. This then delays potential lifesaving treatment for your mother, leading to frustration and anxiety for your family.

The above scenario could very well be a reality for some if not many because of the scarcity of helium. This nonrenewable element is found deep within the Earth’s crust and is in short supply, according to NBC reports. The global helium shortage is due mainly to decreased supply from major producers, including Russia which has curtailed production since the war in Ukraine, according to The Harvard Crimson. Helium is a necessary element needed for the successful operation of all MRIs. Most MRIs require thousands of liters of liquid helium in order to keep their magnets cool for optimal function. As helium dwindles in production, patients are at risk of foregoing MRI studies that are necessary to establish important diagnoses and guide treatment of serious diseases and illnesses.

In 2021 alone, approximately 38 million MRI examinations were performed in the United States, according to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. MRI is an imaging modality used in imaging centers worldwide that provides the best contrast resolution of any imaging modality currently in use for clinical care. For example, MRI can show details in tissues in the body such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bone that are not seen as well in modalities such as X-rays and CT (Computed Tomography).

Radiologists, physicians that interpret diagnostic images and perform minimally invasive image-guided procedures, rely heavily on MRI to make critical diagnoses daily that affect millions of patients. In addition to stroke, MRI remains pivotal in diagnosing tumors all over the body, fractures that may not be initially seen on X-rays, traumatic injuries to the spinal cord, and bone infections to name a few entities.

To put the importance of MRI in further perspective, consider a patient with a fever and a foot wound. A primary consideration for this patient would be whether the bones in the foot are infected. An x-ray can lag behind MRI in showing bone infection, or osteomyelitis, by as many as 21 days, while MRI will show signs of infection much earlier since MRI shows details of the bone architecture that cannot be seen on X-ray. A diagnosis of bone infection may require 4-6 weeks of Intravenous antibiotics, which can result in preventing a foot amputation if the infection were to go untreated. Relying on X-ray alone without MRI can lead to devastating outcomes for patients, as would be the case in many cases of osteomyelitis.

The use of MRI in diagnosing foot infection is just one of many applications for the critical role it plays in patient care. Given the importance of MRI in the medical profession, the helium crisis should be front and center for politicians, policy makers, physicians, patients, and the general public to discuss and find sustainable solutions for. The scarcity of helium is a serious matter and affects all of us directly or indirectly.

Industry, tech, and medical professionals must work together to suggest feasible strategies to tackle this critical shortage. More efficient and judicious use of MRI will likely be needed in the future to ensure sustainability. In addition, finding creative ways to recycle helium have already been suggested and adopted by some institutions across the country. For example, a collaborative team of physicians, scientists, and researchers at the University of California- San Francisco are finding innovative ways to recycle helium, leading to cost savings of at least $120,000 per year. Scientists and researchers at the University of California- Los Angeles have similarly initiated recycling efforts that have led to recovering over 90% of the helium that gets boiled off after use in a MRI magnet.

The helium crisis offers an opportunity for professionals from different sectors to come and work together for the common goal of healthcare sustainability. The future of your loved ones may depend on it.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/omerawan/2022/11/10/the-helium-crisis-how-it-will-affect-you-and-your-loved-ones/?sh=1dc6d3677ed1

The world is running out of helium. Here’s why doctors are worried.

Liquid helium, the coldest element on Earth, is needed to keep the magnets in MRI machines running. Without it, doctors would lose a critical medical tool.

Oct 22, 2022 via NBC

global helium shortage has doctors worried about one of the natural gas’s most essential, and perhaps unexpected, uses: MRIs.

Strange as it sounds, the lighter-than-air element that gives balloons their buoyancy also powers the vital medical diagnostic machines. An MRI can’t function without some 2,000 liters of ultra-cold liquid helium keeping its magnets cool enough to work. But helium — a nonrenewable element found deep within the Earth’s crust — is running low, leaving hospitals wondering how to plan for a future with a much scarcer supply. 

“Helium has become a big concern,” said Mahadevappa Mahesh, professor of radiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Baltimore. “Especially now with the geopolitical situation.”

Helium has been a volatile commodity for years. This is especially true in the U.S., where a Texas-based federal helium reserve is dwindling as the government tries transferring ownership to private markets. 

Until this year, the U.S. was counting on Russia to ease the tight supply. An enormous new facility in eastern Russia was supposed to supply nearly one-third of the world’s helium, but a fire last January derailed the timeline. Although the facility could resume operations any day, the war in Ukraine has, for the most part, stopped trade between the two countries.

Now, four of five major U.S. helium suppliers are rationing the element, said Phil Kornbluth, president of Kornbluth Helium Consulting. These suppliers are prioritizing the health care industry by reducing helium allotments to less essential customers. 

“Helium is on allocation for sure,” said Donna Craft, a regional construction manager for Premier Inc. who contracts with helium suppliers for some 4,000 hospitals. “We’re probably not blowing up balloons in the gift shop anymore.”  

Hospitals haven’t canceled patients’ MRIs or shut down machines yet. They have seen helium costs rise at an alarming rate, though — possibly up to 30%, Kornbluth guessed. But without an end in sight for the helium shortage, the future of MRI remains uncertain. 

‘An essential commodity’

MRI, short for magnetic resonance imaging, has been a staple of health care since the 1980s. The massive machines provide high-resolution images that allow doctors to see details in organs, bones and tissue that may not show up on X-rays. 

“You get these sharp images, and you can distinguish soft tissues,” said Dr. Scott Reeder, chief of MRI at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “It’s central to many things we do in modern medicine.” MRIs help doctors diagnose brain tumors, strokes, spinal cord injuries, liver diseases and cancer. The 3D images, experts say, are irreplaceable. 

Instead of relying on X-rays, which emit trace amounts of radiation to peer inside the body, MRIs use magnetic fields and radio waves. When someone lies stock-still inside the tube-shaped magnetic field, their body’s atoms align with strong magnetic currents. Pulses of radio waves then tell the machine’s sensors which tissues are where, and the machine renders its image. 

Keeping an MRI’s magnetic current superconductive requires extreme cold. That’s where helium comes in: With a boiling point of minus 452 degrees Fahrenheit, liquid helium is the coldest element on Earth. Pumped inside an MRI magnet, helium lets the current travel resistance-free.

“Helium is how the magnet continuously exists,” Mahesh said. “It’s an essential commodity.” 

At any point, an MRI machine contains about 2,000 liters of liquid helium, though suppliers need to replenish any helium that boils off. Mahesh estimates that an MRI machine uses 10,000 liters of liquid helium over its life span. (According to GE Healthcare, a manufacturer of the machines, that life span is 12.8 years.) In 2015, there were roughly 12,000 machines in the U.S., making MRIs one of the biggest helium consumers in the world, far above balloon stores. 

In contrast, spectators have an estimated 400,000 cubic feet of helium to thank for suspending all of the tractor-trailer-size balloons in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Converted to liquid form, that helium would only keep about two MRIs operational for their life span. 

No quick fix

The problem is that no other element is cold enough for the MRI. “There’s no alternative,” Craft, of Premier Inc., said. “Without helium, MRIs would have to shut down.”

Manufacturers like GE Healthcare and Siemens Healthineers recognize this vulnerability. “We are concerned about shortages in the helium market,” said Ioannis Panagiotelis, chief marketing officer of MRI at GE. “Every industry and hospital with an MR system has been affected.”

GE and Siemens are both developing MRIs requiring less liquid helium. Siemens recently introduced one requiring just 0.7 liters, and, according to Panagiotelis, GE rolled out a machine that’s “1.4 times more efficient than previous models.” These technologies aren’t widely available, though, and replacing the country’s 12,000 MRI machines — each weighing up to 50,000 pounds — is anything but a quick fix. Meanwhile, hospitals keep installing additional conventional MRI machines to meet demand for diagnostic scans.

“The concern is the shortage becomes so acute we can’t set up new scanners,” Reeder said. The University of Wisconsin, he said, has plans to open a new cancer center with two MRIs. “When we install those systems, what’s going to happen if there’s no helium?” 

Mahesh said Johns Hopkins is also adding another MRI to its fleet, and it’ll be the same “workhorse scanner” as its 22 other machines. 

As doctors dread possible worst-case scenarios, scientists who use liquid helium for research are already there. When suppliers began rationing this summer, Harvard University physicists Amir Yacoby and Philip Kim shut down around half of their labs’ projects. On the opposite side of the country, the University of California, Davis reported that one of its helium suppliers cut allocations by half, including for medical use. 

“The shortage is motivating us to figure out ways of doing the same experiments without the liquid helium,” Yacoby said. The forced innovation may preview what’s to come for MRIs, and it may be necessary, shortage or no shortage.

“There’s only a finite amount of helium in the Earth’s crust,” Kim said. “Once it evaporates off, it’s completely lost into outer space.”

https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/helium-shortage-doctors-are-worried-running-element-threaten-mris-rcna52978

Helium shortage 4.0 continues, and it’s not just bad for party balloons

Sept 29, 2023 via CTV

A global helium shortage that began last year continues today and could continue well into next year and disrupt various helium-reliant industries in different ways, from predicting the weather to making semiconductors and detecting gas leaks in ships.

Since 2006, this would be the fourth time the world is short on helium.

According to the gas industry, the world is currently experiencing “Helium Shortage 4.0” which can be blamed on declining or unreliable production from existing sources, most notably the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the delay in new sources such as Russia’s Amur plant entering the market.

 Scientists use liquid helium to pressurize and stiffen the structure of rockets before takeoff. Because it is very unreactive and provides an inert protective atmosphere, it is ideal for making fiber optics and semiconductors and is also used for arc welding.

Besides being used in high-speed internet, cable TV, computer hard drives, microscopes, airbags in cars, mobile phones, computers, and tablet chips, helium even acts as a coolant for nuclear reactors.

But the most common use of helium is in hospital magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners. In its liquid form, helium can cool down superconducting magnets, which generate images of the human body, to a temperature below minus 269 degrees Celsius.

Thanks to helium, MRI machines can operate more effectively and efficiently.

Impact of helium shortage on industries

Because helium is a critical element for most industries, a shortage of this finite resource and rising demand could brew up a perfect storm for many industries relying on its use.

To begin with, helium is one of the rarest elements on Earth, it is fairly difficult to mine, and even more difficult to store. Any helium that escapes cannot be recaptured and vents straight into the atmosphere. Besides being difficult to mine, the current helium shortage stems from the limited supply and rising demand across the world.

Very few countries produce this rare element, so even a minor change in the production levels in these countries can significantly impact the global helium supply. An example is the supply chain disruptions that were worsened by the 2017 embargo in Qatar, one of the leading producers of helium. After the Qatar embargo, scientists feared that they would have to halt experiments or shut down laboratories’ instruments. This was because liquid helium has a unique boiling point, which is used to cool superconducting magnets in labs’ spectrometers.

But labs only account for 6 per cent of the helium market, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Hospitals have been the largest end users of helium, making up to 32 per cent of the global market share in 2021, followed by 18 per cent used for lifting balloons, according to the data from J.R. Campbell & Associates.

Helium is used in weather balloons which are typically released twice a day, every day of the year from 900 locations worldwide including those from 100 launch sites across the U.S. and Canada.

The data collected from weather balloons help reveal vital atmospheric features. Through weather models, this data helps in understanding the status of the atmosphere so meteorologists can predict the weather in the coming days.

Earlier this year, a U.S. National Weather Service office in Florida had to cut back on weather balloon launches due to the ongoing helium shortage, cutting the launch of balloons from twice a day to once a day. The helium shortage led to disrupted critical weather balloon launches, which is important for weather forecasting.

“Due to a nationwide helium supply shortage, we will be unable to regularly launch two weather balloons per day,” the U.S. National Weather Service office said in a statementback in February.

Despite the helium shortage having minimal impact on helium weather balloon launches by the Meteorological Service of Canada’s (MSC) Atmospheric Monitoring Division, an emailed statement to CTVNews.ca shows that there are growing concerns on the limited helium supply.

“This shortage remains a significant logistical issue as shipments have been delayed and prices have increased,” Isabelle Maheu, a spokesperson with Environment and Climate Change Canada, said in the email. “Shipments must also be scheduled more frequently due to a lower quantity of helium available per shipment.”

Currently, out of the 30 launching sites in Canada, 13 are using helium with two launches per day and the remaining 17 sites are using hydrogen.

Reasons impacting the supply

The current helium shortage is also due to a series of unforeseen events since last year, such as the shutdown of helium plants in Texas and the war in Ukraine.

One of the leading contributors of helium supply happened due to a leak in mid-January this year at the Cliffside crude helium enrichment plant in Texas. The leak led to an unplanned shutdown in 2022, followed by a four-month outage of the plant in 2021. On its own, this event would not have impacted the helium supply so much had another processing plant at Amur in Russia been operational after its launch in September 2021.

In early January 2022, Russia’s Amur plant, operated by Gazprom, Russia’s largest company, was hit by an explosion after it caught fire in October, which led to its indefinite shutdown. If operational, the two plants would be producing a heavy supply of helium. Amur gas plant was estimated to produce 60 million cubic meters per year and was expected to meet the market supply across the globe.

But after briefly producing helium for only a few weeks since its launch, the abrupt shutdown quickly reduced that supply level to zero. The war in Ukraine further added more doubts on long-term Russian helium availability.

The current helium supply is also getting slashed, which is also pushing up the prices for this natural gas. Helium demand has been rising consistently since 2009, and the market has increased at CAGR 10.1 per cent since 2010. But whether this has led to the shortage remains unclear.

A recent report estimated that the global helium market could reach US$20.17 billion in 2026, growing at a CAGR of 13 per cent from 2022 to 2026. But gas industry experts arguethat rising demand is not the cause of the helium shortage and in fact, helium demand has not experienced net growth over the last 10 years.

Currently, 90 per cent of the world’s helium is supplied by major natural gas producers including Qatar, Algeria, Russia and the U.S. Large-scale natural gas production in these countries allow low overall concentrations of helium to be extracted economically.

But the recent decline in U.S. production and increasing demand from electronic manufacturers in Asia, has prompted interest in helium production in other countries, including Canada.

Saskatchewan is one of the few jurisdictions in the world that has the unique ability to be able to support helium production as a standalone sector. This is due to the province’s geology which supports the drilling of dedicated helium wells. In April last year, Saskatchewan officially became home to the largest helium purification facility in Canada.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimated that Canada has helium resources of roughly 70 billion cubic feet, which is the fifth largest in the world.

This has led to investments with the most interest in helium exploration in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Since 2018, the land leased for the exploration of this rare gas has quadrupled in Saskatchewan. The government in the region now aims to enable helium development to produce 10 per cent of the world’s helium by 2030. This will create 500 plus job opportunities and support thousands of jobs in the construction and services industry, currently facing a major labour shortage. According to the government of Saskatchewan, this will also generate more than $500 million worth of exports for the country.

https://www.ctvnews.ca/sci-tech/helium-shortage-4-0-continues-and-it-s-not-just-bad-for-party-balloons-1.6090014

Canada’s Saskatchewan province gets lift from record helium activity

WINNIPEG, Manitoba, Jan 18 (Reuters) – Canada’s farm and mining province Saskatchewan is seeing record activity in exploration for helium, as global demand rises like a hot air balloon for the gas used to manufacture semiconductors and conduct medical tests.

Saskatchewan produces only 1% of the world’s helium, dwarfed by Qatar and the United States. The provincial government hopes to lift output to 10% of world supply by 2030, and last year unveiled new incentives and credits.

Producers have made a promising start. Saskatchewan issued 126 permits and 72 leases for helium production in 2021, breaking previous records, according to government data obtained by Reuters.

The gas is generating strong demand for manufacturing semiconductors, a critical material for computer chips that has been in short supply during the pandemic. Global demand looks to outstrip supply until at least 2025, keeping prices high, said Phil Skolnick, an analyst at Eight Capital.

Canada has the world’s fifth-biggest helium resources and is strategically located next to the United States, the world’s biggest helium consumer. The industry has long eyed Saskatchewan’s potential but global competition from producers such as Russia’s state-owned Gazprom and U.S. oil major Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM.N) made it difficult to develop.

Royal Helium Ltd (RHC.V) is one of several small companies that hope to take advantage of Saskatchewan’s incentives. Its helium discovery near Climax, Saskatchewan last May was one of the province’s largest known helium discoveries and could support up to 50 wells, double the 24 helium wells currently being drilled in Saskatchewan by all companies combined.

“Finding this new helium fairway in Saskatchewan and having the support of the provincial government to the extent that we do, is making this all possible,” CEO Andrew Davidson said, adding that Royal aims to start production from 10 wells by year-end.

Three firms – North American Helium, Canadian Helium and Weil Group – produce a combined 60 million cubic feet per year in Saskatchewan. North American Helium opened a C$30-million purification plant last spring to supply Air Liquide, which is one of the world’s biggest helium purchasers.

Saskatchewan’s ambition remains a “stretch goal,” considering there are large helium projects under development in Russia and Qatar, said Phil Kornbluth, a U.S.-based helium analyst.

“While there continues to be a bullish opportunity for companies who successfully discover large reserves of helium, and are able to raise significant capital, there has been a fair amount of exaggeration and hype generated by some of the more promotional start-ups,” Kornbluth said.

Saskatchewan, which also produces oil, potash and uranium, has one of the most highly concentrated helium resources in the world. That means it can support drilling for helium itself, rather than capturing it as a byproduct of natural gas production, which accounts for most global helium production, Skolnick said.

That also means Saskatchewan can produce helium without generating most of the methane emissions associated with extracting natural gas, Davidson said.

Energy Minister Bronwyn Eyre said once Saskatchewan’s production grows, it hopes to build a liquefaction plant to convert the gas into liquid, enabling transport over longer distances.

Some producers have already expressed interest, and Saskatchewan has financial incentives available, Eyre said.

Neighboring Alberta is also rich in helium and well-positioned to meet rising demand after establishing a competitive royalty rate for production in 2020, said Jennifer Henshaw, spokesperson for Alberta’s energy minister.