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Is Chromatography Facing a Helium Shortage?

Jul 20 2017 Comments 0

Anyone following the international news over the past few months will know about the difficult situation evolving in the Middle East. The Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE have been blockading Qatar. There are many political reasons why they are blockading Qatar — but now the blockade could be starting to affect chromatographers. And it is all to do with helium.

So abundant yet so rare

Helium is part of the group known as noble gases, and is a chemically inert, colourless and odourless gas. It is so inert towards other chemicals and elements that it only exists as individual atoms, except for a few unstable compounds.

Helium was one of the elements formed at the beginning of time in the big bang, along with hydrogen and lithium. It is the second most abundant element in the Universe, after hydrogen, and forms an estimated 23% of all elemental matter in the Universe.

The element is called helium after the Greek word for the Sun — helios. This is because helium was first discovered in the corona of the Sun during an eclipse using spectroscopy, and later confirmed through the smog of London as a new element, thought only to exist in the Sun. The Earth’s atmosphere contains only small amounts of helium, and it was first identified on Earth when a uranium mineral was dissolved in acid.

Helium and methane — bedfellows

Today the main source of helium on Earth is as a by-product of natural gas exploration and mining. The first discovery of helium as a large deposit underground was in 1903 in Kansas when a drilling operation found a geyser that didn’t burn. Today, the US is the world’s leading supplier of helium — but the largest reserve of helium in the US is expected to run out by 2018, although they have other supplies and more discoveries are being made.

As the price of helium increased significantly, other countries were encouraged to search for and supply helium. One of the world’s largest helium suppliers is Qatar — the source of around 30% of the world’s current supply. Hence the concern at the effect the blockade of Qatar might have on the supply of helium to the rest of the world — and chromatographers.

Helium is the carrier gas of choice for GC analysts. Other choices are hydrogen (too dangerous) and nitrogen (less efficient). The use of helium is discussed in the article, LC-MS/MS and GC-MS/MS Multi Residue Pesticide Analysis in Fruit and Vegetable Extracts on a Single Tandem Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer.

So far, it seems that end users are not affected, and suppliers are rerouting helium supplies to try and ensure continued supply. This is not the first time that helium users have faced restricted supplies. Hold on to your balloons.

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Chromatography Today - September 2017 Volume 10 Issue 3

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