Image of helium containers in a clinical lab.
A renewed helium shortage is impacting laboratory operations and raising concerns about pricing and availability.

Managing Helium Consumption Is Critical as Supply Dips, Prices Rise

The renewed helium shortage is affecting pricing and availability, impacting lab operations

David Gailey is manager of specialty gas products at Harris Products Group. He has worked in the gas pressure and flow control industry for 38 years developing equipment and solutions for the analytical as well as the industrial fabrication industries.

Matt Paradiso is national sales manager at Harris Products Group, working with gas chromatography laboratory and industrial business personnel to get a deep understanding of their specialty gas needs and provide them with gas distribution solutions. He has been involved the industry for more than 30 years.

A complex mix of factors—including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and technical malfunctions at several key suppliers—has led to a renewed helium shortage that is impacting laboratory operations and raising concerns about pricing and availability.

Many lab personnel that use gaseous helium say they’re struggling to get the quantity they need from suppliers and have been put on rationing because of limited supplies. Industry experts predict this crisis will persist for some time, forcing labs to look for ways to reduce their helium consumption. Although shifting from helium to hydrogen as a carrier gas for applications like gas chromatography may seem like a logical solution, this could result in a major capital expense—converting to hydrogen would require purchasing hydrogen gas generators and new piping and components. In addition, converting each process run is time-consuming, and would require many hours of lab personnel time.

While the helium shortage is a major concern, there are simple, cost- effective solutions to help analytical lab personnel with their helium allocations.

Switching to nitrogen

An analytical laboratory manager using helium as the make-up gas can consider switching to nitrogen for this part of the process. Not only will it save helium, the laboratory will experience better separation using nitrogen, which has a larger molecular structure and provides better performance. Additionally, nitrogen is significantly less expensive than helium, and since it requires such a low volume when used as a make-up gas, a cylinder should last many months. A drawback with nitrogen, however, is that the process runs take much longer.

Maximizing helium use

Many laboratories waste gas by changing out the cylinders on a predetermined schedule rather than when they drop to a given pressure point. Adding a monitoring system to the gas delivery equipment will minimize the amount of unused gas left in each cylinder and notify lab personnel when the cylinder needs to be changed.

A switchover manifold that automatically switches gas supply from a primary cylinder to a reserve cylinder is ideal for ensuring continuous gas flow. Switchover manifolds have a low, predetermined pressure point for the switch, using up as much helium as possible in each cylinder. Higher end switchover systems can be programmed to switch over at even lower cylinder pressures, further maximizing helium usage.

Conserving gas consumption

Regulators are also important in conserving gas consumption. Regulators with a low internal volume, coupled with a built-in check valve, prevent contamination and back flow when changing to a new cylinder. Reducing contamination eliminates the need to purge, which will not only reduce helium usage costs, it will also extend the life of the column and purifiers.

Leaking gas delivery systems are also a common problem. Often the equipment is as old as the oldest process in the lab, comprised of copper or elastomeric tubing with compression fittings. Over time the brass fitting will lose its seal integrity. Since helium is a very small molecule that can easily escape through poor seals, these types of fittings and environments can be a huge contributor to inefficiencies and leakage. Replacing hoses and fittings is a prime opportunity to increase usage efficiency. Stainless steel flex hoses are highly preferable to rubber or Teflon lines, which lose helium through diffusion.

The gas system should be checked for leaks every time a cylinder is changed out, or at least once a month.