Helium prices in the U.S., the world’s biggest producer, are trading at the highest level since at least 1995 as the shale boom exacerbates a shortage of the gas used in everything from semiconductors to medical equipment.
Private buyers paid an average $6.13 a cubic meter in the 12 months through September, up 6.2 percent from the previous year, the U.S. Geological Survey said in a report on its website yesterday. U.S. helium output from natural gas declined 6.3 percent from four years earlier to 75 million cubic meters, according to the report. World production slid 1.1 percent.
Surging prices are causing Toshiba Corp. (6502) to use less in semiconductor production while Siemens AG (SIE) invests in ways to reduce its need in magnetic resonance imaging technology. U.S. output is shrinking even as supplies of natural gas, the source of most helium, rise an average of about 4 percent a year. That’s because shale deposits, which made up almost a third of U.S. output last year, yield almost none.
“This is certainly consistent to the pricing pressure we are seeing as an end user,” said Tom Rauch, sourcing manager for General Electric Co. (GE)’s health care unit, the world’s biggest maker of magnetic resonance imaging machines, which are built using the gas. “Demand has exceeded supply.”
Iwatani Corp. (8088), a Japanese importer of the gas, forecasts prices will continue to rise as much as 20 percent a year for the foreseeable future. Industrial-grade processed helium sells in Japan for as much as 2,000 yen ($21.90) a standard cubic meter, Takanori Yokoyama, a spokesman for Iwatani, said in an e- mail in December.
Chipmakers use the gas to cool semiconductor wafers during manufacturing, while it’s also used to keep the magnets within MRI machines cool enough for the medical body scanners to operate. Japan, the biggest importer, consumed about 7.5 percent of the estimated 6.3 billion cubic feet used worldwide in 2012, according to data from J.R. Campbell & Associates in Lexington, Massachusetts.
“There’s no other gas you can use that would be cheaper,” Geoff Haire, head of chemical equity research at HSBC Bank Plc in London, said by phone before yesterday’s report. “The industries don’t really have a choice. They’re just going to have to pay more for it.”
Toshiba, the world’s second-largest maker of flash-memory, which is made with semiconductors, is preparing for a shortage, the company said in an e-mailed response to questions.
“We recognize the supply of helium will stay tight,” the company said, adding that it’s not yet having trouble sourcing the gas. “We are continuously taking measures including diversifingy suppliers and reducing the amount used.”
Siemens, based in Munich, Germany, has moved to MRI machines that recycle helium rather than boil it off, and continues to dedicate part of its research and development budget to developing that technology, Matthias Kraemer, a Siemens spokesman, said in an e-mail. General Electric has also transitioned to the zero boil-off devices, as it works to develop machines that can be sustained with less helium or using other gases, said Rauch, who is based in Wisconsin.
The shortage hasn’t just impacted high-tech production in Japan. Tokyo Disneyland stopped selling balloons featuring images of Mickey Mouse and other cartoon characters on Nov. 21 after its supply of the gas was cut off, said Tsutomu Kato, a spokesman for Oriental Land Co. (4661), which owns the Disney resort.
“It’s not a matter of the price being high,” Kato said. “There physically just isn’t any gas available.”
Global helium consumption was 6.3 billion cubic feet in 2012, up 3.3 percent from 6.1 billion cubic feet in 2007, said Maura Garvey, a market research director for J.R. Campbell.
“Everything that’s produced is consumed,” she said.
The estimated price paid by private buyers has risen 48 percent from as little as $4.15 in 2008 and is up from $1.80 in 1995, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Production of natural gas was forecast to increase 17 percent during that period to an estimated 23.7 trillion cubic feet last year, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration dated June 2012.
Shale gas contains virtually no helium because its molecules are small enough to pass through the porous rock formations containing the fuel, according to Richard Clarke, a helium and cryogenics consultant in Oxford, England. Gas produced conventionally in the Texas panhandle, the U.S.’s biggest helium-producing area, is about 0.3 percent helium, he said.
“The more shale gas production there is, the more diluted the helium is,” Clarke said before the release of the U.S. government data. “It just makes it more difficult to access helium.”
An estimated 7.67 trillion cubic feet of U.S. natural gas was extracted using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of shale rock in the U.S. last year. That’s 17 times more than a decade earlier, according to the EIA, which forecast production will reach 13.6 trillion cubic feet in 2035, accounting for 49 percent of gas output.
“The fracking mining that has become such a boom in the U.S. and Canada yields virtually no helium gas,” Rauch said previously. “It’s just a matter of finding sources that are high enough in helium content to make it economically viable to refine.”
The market is also being affected by uncertainty over the future of the Bureau of Land Management’s helium reserve near Amarillo, Texas, which supplies about 30 percent of the world’s annual supply, Clarke said. Legislation is being considered in Washington that would determine the future of the reserve, which was established as part of the government’s 1925 Federal Helium Program, a plan to provide a steady stream of the gas for military blimps.
Some demand could be satisfied this year with the start of the so-called Ras Laffan Helium 2 plant in Qatar. The facility is designed to produce 1.3 billion cubic feet a year, 20 percent of which is contracted to Iwatani.
A unit of Taiyo Nippon Sanso Corp. (4091), a gas distributor, is a partner in a new helium plant in western Wyoming that will produce 200 million cubic feet when it begins operations this year, Miho Nakamura, a Taiyo Nippon spokeswoman, said in an e- mail. Half of that helium will belong to Taiyo Nippon and its U.S. subsidiary, Matheson Tri-Gas Inc., Nakamura said.
“As helium costs rise each year, we pass the increases along to our customers as much as possible,” Nakamura said. “With existing plants expected to continue cutting production, we constantly have to pay close attention to the acquisition of new sources.”
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