Helium shortages leave some western Canadian universities scrambling
'We risk losing our instrumentation and all of the associated research'
Researchers at some Canadian universities are struggling with a helium shortage, which could potentially put scientific research in jeopardy — and put equipment at risk of damage.
Helium is critical in keeping superconducting magnets in instruments, such as mass spectrometers and MRI machines, at extremely low temperatures.
Ryan McKay, a facility manager at the University of Alberta in charge of the specialized equipment, said a U.S. supplier recently informed him that helium shipments could no longer be guaranteed due to issues at the plant.
"We were told that we should not expect helium until January of next year, which is really, really crucial for our systems," he said.
There are about 24 superconducting magnets on campus, McKay said. The instruments are used around the clock every day of the year.
"Without a steady supply of helium, we risk damaging our instrumentation," McKay said. "We risk losing our instrumentation and all of the associated research."
Without a steady supply of helium, we risk damaging our instrumentation.- Ryan McKay
The shortages could compromise research reliant on the machines that require helium, including work on renewable energy, biomedical implants and even COVID-19.
Vlad Michaelis, an associate professor of chemistry at the U of A and Canada Research Chair in magnetic resonance of advanced materials, said that if a magnet is not re-filled with helium on time, it will no longer be able to hold the magnetic field and become damaged or fail.
"We have to kind of go into a caution mode where we try to strategize how to use what we have and to maintain the longevity as much as possible," Michaelis said.
The issue is not isolated to the University of Alberta; the University of British Columbia's Okanagan Campus is facing a similar situation.
Paul Shipley, an associate professor of chemistry at UBC Okanagan, said the university is suffering significantly due to the helium shortage and is in danger of losing a magnet this weekend due to the lack of liquid helium.
Sophia Hayes is a professor of chemistry and research scientist at the University of Washington in St. Louis who uses helium.
She said there can be periodic shortages of helium and that there are only three major suppliers worldwide: the United States, Algeria and Qatar.
"So if there are any disruptions to any aspect of the supply chain — whether there is a shipping problem because there is a conflict in an overseas territory or if there is major maintenance on the U.S. portion of the supply chain — then that can lead to large downturns," Hayes said.
The fragile supply system is prompting conversations about whether more domestic production of helium is needed.
McKay said the COVID-19 pandemic has shown how vulnerable borders can be and that there should be national capabilities for production.
"It sure would be nice to have a made-in-Canada option if possible," he said.
Unexpected shipments of helium have arrived at the University of Alberta in the last few days. McKay has scrambled to find shipments from elsewhere, alleviating a tough situation, but a reliable supply is still needed.
Provinces such as Alberta and Saskatchewan are tapping into their helium reserves below ground.
Energy Minister Bronwyn Eyre said the province conducted geological surveying of approximately 88,000 oil and gas wells and close to 6,500 gas analysis tests.
"They confirm Saskatchewan has world-class helium concentrations," Eyre said.
"We fully expect we can achieve up to 10 per cent of global market share by 2030."
McKay and Michaelis point to the work being done on the Prairies on helium, saying extra options are a good thing.
"I think once they get going, this will be a very nice addition, at least for our supply issues," Michaelis said.