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Research project set to uncover the future of helium

BOC Gases : 23 September, 2006  (Company News)
The UK's biggest provider of helium is joining forces with a major user and Cambridge academics to sponsor a three year research project, the results of which are expected to reveal how much longer industry can rely on this increasingly scare resource.
Industrial and special gases company, BOC and UKAEA’s Fusion Engineering Outreach programme are jointly funding The Helium Resources Project at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, to determine the long-term availability and demands for helium, a unique but finite resource extracted from natural gas reserves.

Helium is an inert, light gas with a range of unique properties that make it critical for science and engineering applications. It is used as a cryogen in research, medical and space industries and for inerting and leak detection in engineering. By far the greatest use currently is in MRI scanners for cooling their superconducting magnets.

Worldwide demand for helium is growing dramatically as high tech industries develop new applications dependent on helium. On current estimates, experts predict that global consumption of circa 75 tonnes per day may only be possible for a few decades.

Richard Clarke of the UKAEA said: “Because helium is inextricably tied with natural gas reserves it seems inevitable that the world will run low of this rare gas, it is just a matter of when this will happen. The purpose of this project is to help us understand if and how the use of our helium resources can be sustained so that present consumption does not leave us short in the future.”

Said Clarke: “While of significance to a range of industries the findings will have particular relevance to fusion energy research where liquid helium is used extensively. As progress is made towards a working reactor, decisions will have to be made about what role helium will have in fusion power stations.”

“Doing the work now to anticipate what will be needed in ten to twenty years is crucial. Already we have technological solutions on the horizon that could potentially reduce fusion’s dependence on helium. We need a basis for deciding a programme to put resources into these, so that new technologies are developed and accepted.”

Nick Ward, BOC business manager helium and special products said: “As a global provider of helium to some of the world’s major users, BOC’s objective is to ensure a secure supply for our customers well into the future.

Said Ward: “While BOC is constantly working with our customers to understand and predict their future needs, strategic planning for helium dependent industries requires a broader understanding of this resource, the relevant technology being developed around it and the full dynamics of the helium market.

“Sustaining a global supply of helium is, without a doubt, vital for helium dependent industries. BOC believes this project will advance our understanding and pave the way for new market and technological opportunities.”

The Project, ‘A Study of Global Helium Resources’, will be undertaken by PhD student Zhiming Cai supervised by Dr William Nuttall (Judge Business School) and Dr Bartek Glowacki (Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy), University of Cambridge.

Dr William (Bill) Nuttall said: 'Helium is a finite resource, yet few people have worried about its long-term availability. Perhaps the foreseeable future will be characterised by a widespread abundance of helium - we aim to investigate such possibilities.

“Looking further ahead helium is likely to play a special role in future energy and transport systems: for instance as a heat transfer medium in many types of power station, as a cryogen associated with the hydrogen economy, or as a lift gas for more sustainable modes of air transport.

“These demands will follow from the world's need to move away from fossil fuels for environmental and energy security reasons. It is then that a difficulty will surely arise because helium is a by-product of fossil fuel extraction. Without a fossil fuel industry, will we have sufficient affordable helium? When will the world tip from abundance to scarcity?”

From the Department of Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, Dr. Bartek Glowacki said: “The development and characterisation of metallic and magnesium di-boride superconductors in our research labs across Europe for MRI and future fusion projects requires everyday use of liquid helium. But the problem is that, after evaporation, it is not often economic for universities and R&D establishments to recover helium. We have to look at this case and possibly develop alternative technologies.'
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