Posted on: 10th September 2012

It’s a well known fact that the fusion of tritium and deuterium produces helium. However, a fusion power plant also uses helium – it is a vital coolant which, while not actually consumed, is inevitably lost during operation in quantities that far outweigh the amount produced – and in recent years it has become apparent the future supply of helium is not assured.

At the Cryogenics 2012 international conference in Dresden former Cryogenic Section Leader at JET, Richard Clarke, presented a paper about the world’s helium market. In 2005, while working at Culham, Richard was prompted by uncertainties in the helium supply to begin investigating the situation, which led to a global exploration of the technological, economic and political factors influencing the helium market. Teaming up with William J Nuttall and Bartek A Glowacki from Cambridge University Richard has recently co-edited a book, entitled “The Future of Helium as a Natural Resource” (Routledge 2012). The book is the first in-depth book on the noble gas since 1968.

Helium is produced in the ground by alpha decay of naturally radioactive minerals, and then comes to the surface as a by-product of natural gas production. “The big challenge now is for the natural gas industry to better preserve known geological helium reserves,” says Richard Clarke. Although the global helium market turns over around $1 billion per year and demand is predicted to double by 2030, this is a pittance compared with the $1 trillion natural gas market – there is little incentive for natural gas producers to invest in additional processing to extract helium.

In a recent comment published in Nature, the three authors added their voices to those calling for global arrangements to oversee helium resources: “A global agency is urgently needed to address the long-term issues facing the supply and demand of this precious element.”

In the meantime JET has been doing its bit towards preserving this scarce resource: the cryogenics plant has recently been upgraded, which has halved the amount of helium lost during operation.