9 ways that technology uses helium

Western Digital's new helium-filled hard drives prompted questions about whether it is wise to use already low helium reserves for this purpose. In reality, the helium supply is growing, and the drives would use a minuscule amount of it anyway. Here are 9 other ways that helium is used today.

Image of a helium filled discharge tube shaped like the element’s atomic symbol
The many uses of helium

Western Digital's announcement that it’s shipping 6TB helium-filled hard drives raised eyebrows among industry pundits that it could further deplete already low helium reserves.

Actually, through renewed efforts to replenish reserves and new mining efforts, helium supplies worldwide are growing. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees the U.S. reserve, believes that within five years, helium supply will exceed demand.

Western Digital argues that its hard drives, even at peak sales, will only account for 1% of U.S. use. The U.S. uses about 5.5 billion cubic feet of helium gas a year. Helium is now being used in a variety of ways. But first, a little background.

(Data source: U.S. Bureau of Land Management)

The Crude Helium Enrichment Unit in the Cliffside Gas Field.
Bush Dome Federal Helium Reserves

In 1962, Congress established The Bush Dome Helium Reserves 3,000 feet under a depleted gas field outside Amarillo, Texas. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management oversees the Federal Helium Reserves, which stores 42% of the U.S supply (and 30% of the world's supply).

Under the Helium Privatization Act of 1996, the reserves were sold off, artificially depressing worldwide prices. But as the draw-down neared, prices spiked. Last year, the government charged $75.75 per thousand cubic feet of helium, an all-time high; the private sector charged $160.

Though demand for helium will rise between 7% and 10% next year, the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 will slow the sell-off and transition helium pricing to private rates. In addition, by 2018, new mining operations should produce helium surpluses.

MRI machine
MRI machines

Helium’s low boiling point makes it a good coolant for magnets in hardware like MRI machines. At minus 452 degrees Fahrenheit, the gas is used to transform the magnets into superconductors that power scanners to create more powerful magnetic fields. That yields greater detail in the radiological image scans.

The use of helium to cool magnets and other high temperature operations falls under the category of “heat transfer.” Heat transfer operations throughout the world use about 9% of helium supplies.

The Large Hadron Collider
Credit: CERN
The Large Hadron Collider

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s most powerful particle collider, requires 149 tons of liquid helium to operate its giant superconducting magnets. The LHC’s inventory includes a strategic stock of about 165 tons of helium, or about 2.5% of the yearly European market. The EU market represents about 20% of worldwide market.

The LHC’s cryogenic system’s efficiency has improved over time, allowing the facility to store less helium. The LHC has reduced its helium reserves from 30% of inventory in 2010 to 16% in 2012. “This is to be compared to other major research infrastructures where 50% helium storage per year was the standard, with ultimate records at 25% of losses per year,” said Serge Claudet, who leads the LHC's work on cryogenics.

Good Year blimp
Helium balloons

Known as “lift gas,” helium for party balloons and weather balloons is responsible for about 13% of helium use. Though less boyant than hydrogen, another gas used in balloons and other lighter-than-air aircrafts, helium is preferable because it is not flammable. 

Optics fibers
Fiber optics and semiconductors

Known as “heat transfer,” helium is used for cooling in high-tech manufacturing operations. For example, in fiber optic cable manufacturing, liquid helium’s low temperature and non-volatile nature makes it ideal to cool silica strands.

Helium is also used as a coolant in semiconductor manufacturing. The heat transfer marketplace uses about 9% of the world’s helium production.

chromatography system. This instrument records concentrations of acrylonitrile in the air at various points throughout the chemical laboratory.
Chromatography

Chromatography is a collective term used for laboratory techniques to separate mixtures. Helium is used specifically for gas chromatography because it is stable and non-flammable. Chromatography uses about 4.25% of helium supplies.

Delta IV Medium rocket with DSCS satellite
Inner atmosphere operations

Helium is widely used in pressure purging operations where one type of gas under pressure is replaced by helium as it’s used.

For example, NASA and the aerospace industry were the biggest consumers of helium gas a couple of years ago, when it was used in Delta IV rockets to maintain pressure in liquid oxygen fuel tanks. As liquid oxygen is burned as rocket fuel, helium is injected into the fuel tanks to keep them from collapsing. Inner atmosphere operations use 10% of the world’s helium supply. 

A man gas metal arc welding
Gas metal arc welding

Helium is used as a shielding gas in arc welding. The helium provides a protective atmosphere around the welding site; it is necessary when the metal is in a molten state to keep it from oxidizing. Welding operations use about 23% of the world’s helium supply.

Scuba diver
Breathing mixtures

Helium mixtures such as trimix, heliox and heliair are used for deep diving to reduce the build up of nitrogen in the blood at depths below 490 feet. Helium for breathing mixtures takes up about 3% of the world’s supply.

A Helium Leak Detection Machine
Leak detection

Helium is used to detect leaks in fuel tanks and gas lines. The object with the leak is placed in a vacuum chamber of a leak detection machine. It is then filled with helium and a helium mass spectrometer will detect where the leak is located.

This process was first used during the Manhattan Project to find leaks in uranium enrichment plans. About 5.7% of the world’s helium supply is used for this.

Stairs down surrounded by mist
Unknown uses

Despite all we know about how helium is used, there is still a great deal that we don't know. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, about 16% of helium supplies go toward “unknown uses.”

 covers consumer data storage, consumerization of IT, mobile device management, renewable energy, telematics/car tech and entertainment tech for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.