Could gas shortage pop WD's helium drive plans?

Plans to ramp up helium production in the works

Western Digital's HGST subsidiary may not have picked the best time to have a breakthrough in hard-disk drive innovation.

After a decade of trying, HGST recently perfected a method to seal helium gas inside drives. The company is preparing to launch a line of hard drives filled with the gas, which it says will drastically reduce internal friction and thus lower power consumption by 23% while increasing capacity by 40%.

Currently, however, helium reserves in the U.S., which supplies 75% of world's annual demand for 6.2 billion cubic feet, are at an all-time low. Under current conditions, the largest U.S. reserve will only last another five to six years unless additional supplies are brought on line.

HGST told Computerworld that the helium it would be using would cost mere pennies per drive.

"As we will not be a big consumer of helium, our requirements will have little incremental impact on the overall worldwide demand for helium. The incremental parts costs and capital costs of assembly tooling for the helium-filled drives are more significant but manageable enabling us to deliver a compelling $/GB and watts/GB advantage over air," wrote Brendan Collins, vice president of Enterprise Storage at HGST..

While helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, here on earth, most of it bleeds right through the atmosphere and into space.

Helium is a byproduct of natural gas production and it is a non-renewable resource. In the simplest terms, however, the current shortage is not necessarily critical. Current demand is simply outstripping supply, said Donna Hummel, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Worldwide demand for helium is expected to rise by between 7% and 10% over the next year, primarily due to demands from the Asian market, Hummel said.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees the Federal Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas, which stores about 30% of the world's supply.

"Just like everything else, supply and demand wrestle back and forth," Hummel said. "There's no reason new markets that use helium could not be managed, but at what cost? No one in the BLM is saying we can't support the new industries. But, we can't vouch for how the market will respond."

The Federal Helium reserves are kept 3,000 feet below ground in a natural geologic gas storage formation called the Bush Dome Reservoir.

The major issue confronting worldwide helium supplies is the wholesale sell off of the reserves in the Bush Dome Reservoir that has been going on for the past 15 years.

Walter Nelson, director of helium sourcing for Air Products and Chemicals, told the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in May that with current production rates of about two billion cubit feet per year, the Federal Reservoir could continue to create helium for another "five to six more years." Computer modeling, he told the committee, shows reservoir production will decline to approximately 1 billion cubic feet per year after 2014.

The Federal Helium Reserve was established in 1925 as a strategic supply of gas for dirigibles. During World War I, America was only able to build a few air ships because of it lacked a non-flammable gas. Later, in the 1950s, those reserves were used as a coolant by NASA during the race to be first to put a man into space.

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