Like their counterparts in various industries, forensic scientists at the US Drug Enforcement Administration need helium for use in scientific instruments, which in their case test the nature and purity of narcotics and other substances.
But there is a finite amount of helium in the world—it’s a non-renewable resource light enough to escape Earth’s atmosphere—and the industry is battling serious supply disruptions. A DEA solicitation issued yesterday (Dec. 19) reads, “Helium that is Ultra High Purity (UHP) of 99.998% is required in order to meet stringent purity standards for use with our scientific equipment.”
Will the nation’s primary drug cops be able to get their hands on all the helium they need? Industry consultant Phil Kornbluth told Quartz that “some labs might be experiencing delayed shipments, but government users normally get a pretty high priority.” Most likely, Kornbluth said, the DEA will be “seeing much higher prices for new procurement.”
The helium shortage
Last year, Qatar, home to the world’s largest helium refining facility, was forced to cease production when Saudi Arabia closed its border with the Gulf state, blocking overland exports. This caused an immediate 25% drop in global supply, and the shortage remains in effect. In March, some scientists reported being able to get just 75% of their normal helium allocations.
Prices for helium have gone up 250% over the past decade and stayed high, due at least partially to lower US production. Some researchers said they gave up their summer salaries and worked for free in order to cover their helium costs, according to a 2016 policy report (pdf) by the American Physical Society, Materials Research Society, and American Chemical Society.
“It’s a big issue that merits attention,” said Scott Lockledge, a chemist and former member of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
There are just 14 refineries in six countries—Qatar, Algeria, Russia, Poland, Australia, and the US—that produce liquid helium. Only seven suppliers in the US are approved to provide helium (pdf) to the federal government.
The US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) supplies over 40% of all domestic helium demand in concert with private refiners; the National Helium Reserve is located in Amarillo, Texas, the so-called “Helium Capital of the World.” The Amarillo reserve is running out, says National Geographic, and Congress has given the BLM until Sept. 30, 2021 to auction off its remaining helium stores.
In a recent interview with Gas World, a trade publication, Kornbluth said he considered the state of future helium supply to be “fragile.” Yet, he also predicted some possible improvements in 2019, when new helium production capacity in Qatar comes online. Another new helium plant in eastern Russia is set to come online in 2021.
“Other sectors, like party balloons, are experiencing difficulty obtaining supply and sharply higher prices,” Kornbluth noted.
As Taylor Kiger, a manager at Woodland Floral and Gifts in Kalispell, Montana, told the Flathead Beacon, the price of a helium balloon has tripled in the past few years, from $1 to $3.
Keep it confidential
Still, we may never know how things turn out for the DEA. Delivery of the noble gas is to be made to the DEA’s Southwest Laboratory, located near San Diego. Neither that lab’s director nor the DEA’s public affairs unit responded to a request for comments, and yesterday’s solicitation emphasizes the need for confidentiality:
“The Contractor and its personnel shall hold all information obtained under the DEA contract in the strictest confidence. All information obtained shall be used only for the purpose of performing this contract and shall not be divulged nor made known in any manner to any person except as necessary to perform this contract. The Contractor’s employee(s) shall not divulge, sell, or distribute any information at any point in time, even after termination or expiration of the contract.”