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A recent halt in helium production in Qatar could soon trigger a worldwide shortage.

According to a report in Reuters earlier this month, Qatar shut down two helium manufacturing facilities following a blockade imposed by other Arab states due to the country’s links to terrorism.

The plant closures could impact 30 percent of the world’s supply of helium.

Helium is used in a range of crucial industrial and medical applications — from MRI imaging to equipment leak detection and electronics manufacturing.

The U.S. remains the world’s biggest supplier of helium, and the industry here is worth about $4.7 billion. But as America’s stockpile of helium has shrunk, the issue has attracted an increasing amount of concern, because once helium is used, the non-renewable mineral resource is gone forever. 

Air Products provides helium to more than 4,000 Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) customer sites throughout the U.S. IT (Image credit: Air Products)

Although some countries have begun exploring alternate ways to find or recycle helium, others have ramped up production, including Qatar. In the past few years, the country’s helium capacity (as a percentage of global production) has nearly doubled. In fact, Reuters reports that the helium industry is likely to be the hardest hit by the boycott, because it is the only commodity market where Qatar is such a major world player.

Much of Qatar’s helium exits the country on trucks that cross Saudi Arabia and transport the gas from the Port of Jebel Ali in Dubai. Because the journey to the shipments’ destinations takes about a month, recently produced helium is already in transit, which could buffer the global supply until July.

In the meantime, Linde, a German industrial gases company, said it is planning to meet demand via helium sources in Australia, Algeria and the U.S. A Japanese company that is the main supplier of helium to China and Southeast Asia recently said that it has about a month’s supply in stock.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Texas is also hoping to offset losses from Qatar by increasing production.

If the diplomatic rift in Qatar isn’t resolved soon, experts say that helium users should brace for higher prices and a possible shortage later this summer. 

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