June 28, 2019 1.55 pm This story is over 29 months old

Business Week: How the global helium shortage is freezing out engineers of the future

From this week’s Business Week newsletter

The worldwide helium shortage will affect more than just your next party. Innovative new engineering companies say they are battling a squeezed market, with prices more than doubling in the last year and suppliers prioritising the biggest spenders over sustainable, industrial SMEs.

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It’s a warning amplified by Lincoln vacuum pump repair and refurbishment specialists Cryovac Engineering Ltd. The firm, which was founded in 2014, is one of only a few companies in the UK offering in-house service and repair of cryopumps and compressors used in the semiconductor process and vacuum coatings industries. Clients include nearby Dynex Semiconductor.

The company uses helium gas to service products, and has also implemented ways of saving and reusing some of the resource.

Cryovac says it recently fell short of a new minimum purchase criteria implemented by helium suppler BOC. Ironically, they say improving sustainability processes, reducing consumption from one cylinder a month to one every 12 months (while production quadrupled), has landed them below the threshold.

Besides making excited revellers sounds like chipmunks, helium is also used in its liquid form to cool superconducting magnets within Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanners, as well as in photovoltaics, or solar cells.

High technology industrial applications, which contribute to the UK economy, compete for helium gas with the giant scale party balloon industry.

It’s a non-renewable source, which means once it’s gone, it’s gone. The US has primarily been the world’s largest producer of helium. This is the third global helium shortage in the past 14 years. The recent shortage is in part due to the blockade by Saudi Arabia against Qatar, one of the world’s largest producers of helium.

The problem is, some suppliers are reacting to the shortage, by limiting supply to the clients with the biggest budgets. These are often in the party industry and seen, by the Lincoln engineering firm at least, as wasting a valuable resource.

Managing Director of Cryovac Engineering Ltd Robin Young argues the priorities are wrong, and has even begun campaigning local MPs to join him in calling for a ban of the sale of helium party balloons.

“It seems we are being penalised for responding intelligently to sustainability issues, and at the same time we are aware that BOC supply large volumes of helium for party balloons which irreversibly consumes the dwindling supply of this resource.

“It would be a sad outcome if the BOC policy subordinates the needs of science, industry and medicine to the interest of the entertainment business.”

BOC could not be reached to address concerns about supply denial to small businesses.

The company issued a statement on its website in May confirming it would ration sales of its balloon gas cylinders across the UK. It said it would only supply gas to existing customers in accordance with a one-in one-out policy: “Due to a global helium shortage that we believe is affecting all suppliers, all pure helium and balloon gas orders are currently on a full for empty basis only.”

Cryovac found a new supplier this time, but warned restrictions to smaller businesses will put entire operations at risk and have a knock on effect on customers in the semiconductor industry.

The company’s feelings about the issue have even been manifested by team member Elaine Gordon, who decided to create a series of sketches, ready for a social media campaign.

Most of the company’s other competitors ship pumps to France or Germany for service. Robin predicts that demand may increase off the back of the UK’s departure from the EU, but not if small UK companies are denied supply.

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