POPA Report

Responding to the US Research Community’s Liquid Helium Crisis

Sept. 1, 2016

Executive summary

Liquid helium is the professional lifeblood of tens of thousands of scientists and engineers across America's discovery and innovation landscape, including universities, industries, and national laboratories. It has enabled the development of billion-dollar industries, fueled essential life-saving medical diagnostic tools, led to thousands of patents, generated numerous Nobel prizes — and it remains essential to future innovation.

There is no replacement for liquid helium. Helium is unique among all elements for its ability to reach ultra-cold temperatures. Its essential role in the US scientific enterprise has been documented in multiple reports and statements by many esteemed scientific organizations, including the American Physical Society, Materials Research Society, American Chemical Society, and the National Academy of Sciences.

The quantity of liquid helium used in scientific research is only a small fraction of the total helium market. As a result of this relative small market usage, the scientific community has little, if any, purchasing power in the helium market, and researchers suffer from unpredictability and instability in both supply and price. During the last five years, some researchers have seen prices increase by more than 250%, and the supply has been severely limited and uncertain.

If nothing is done to address these price and supply issues, then there will be a lasting negative effect on the scientific enterprise in the U.S. In fact, as helium has become less available and much more expensive, we have already begun to see damaging signs:

  • scientists are abandoning areas of research that require liquid helium;
  • professors are having to cut the hiring of graduate students; and
  • institutions are moving away from hiring new faculty in areas of research that require the use of liquid helium, which jeopardizes the future health of vibrant areas of scientific research.

This report lays out the issues facing researchers who use liquid helium and the negative impact on US innovation. The report then proposes five key steps that will have a transformative effect on the ability to maintain the ready availability of helium and ensure the vibrancy of the US low-temperature research capability. These recommendations focus on: conservation of helium use; a mechanism to pay for the capital investment required for helium recycling; a mechanism to ensure an appropriate price is paid by researchers for helium; and a methodology which allows researchers to best explore the options available to them.

The comprehensive and achievable recommendations covering the Executive Branch, Congress, and scientific societies are as follows:

  1. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Office of Management and Budget together should develop guidance to federal agencies, which use or support the use of helium, on establishing plans to conserve helium without compromising their mission or the vitality of their research and development programs. The National Science Foundation's Division of Materials Research program to fund small-scale liquefiers for researchers it supports serves as an example, and agencies are encouraged to explore other avenues to conserve and recycle helium. Given the urgency of the situation, federal agencies should submit their plans to OSTP within six months of the issue date of any directive.
  2. Congress should mandate that a portion of the monies raised through the sales of crude helium from the Federal Helium Reserve be used to help finance the capital investment in equipment that reduces academic researchers' helium consumption.
  3. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) should clarify and then widely publicize its regulations regarding the in-kind helium program to explain that federal grantees are eligible for the program. The "major helium requirement" volume threshold should be removed for federal grantees.
  4. BLM should establish a royalty in-kind program for helium. A portion of the helium extracted from federal lands should be marked as in-kind and sold to vendors based on the current and established pricing methodology. Vendors would be required to refine and resell the helium to federal end-users.
  5. The professional scientific societies should develop a methodology to help academic researchers determine if — given helium costs, scientific requirements and existing infrastructure — it is financially beneficial to make a capital investment in equipment to reduce their helium usage. The societies should facilitate contact between interested researchers worldwide and manufacturers of helium liquefiers and recyclers.

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