September 24, 2012 -- “Everytime you see a child with a helium balloon, imagine somebody not being able to have an MRI scan that they desperately needed,” says Tom Welton,
Professor of Sustainable Chemistry at Imperial College. As the professor warns that the helium shortage may soon impact the pharmaceutical industry,
contract research organisation Melbourn Scientific, based in Melbourn Herts, is already responding.
“Helium is truly a finite resource”, Prof. Welton continues. “With increasing demand from places like China, supply cannot keep up. We have
already been warned that availability is patchy and we may not always be able to have our usual amount.”
According to the Royal Society of Chemistry report ‘Endangered Elements’ although Helium may be the second most abundant element in the universe,
here on earth this noble gas is rare and precious. It comes from the natural breakdown of uranium and as a by-product from natural gas exploitation.
Thirty percent of the world’s helium comes for the US National Helium Reserve which extracts the gas from under the American Great Plains.
However since 1995, the US government has been selling its reserves of gas at bargain prices and consumption has increased worldwide, with applications
including airport scanners and wind turbines.
Robert Richardson, the Nobel laureate who discovered liquid helium's superfluid properties estimates that at current rates, 'the world would run
out in 25 years, plus or minus five years,'
In the pharmaceutical industry the gas is used for cryogenic cooling (for example super cooling of magnets used for MRI) and is widely used for gas
chromatography in pharmaceutical analysis.
Steve Westcott CEO of Melbourn Scientific has been developing a response to the potential risk of rising prices and a world shortage.
“Gas chromatography uses helium as a carrier gas as it provides good separations, it is inert and until recently has been readily available.
However the cost and uncertainity of supply has meant that we have been considering how to ‘future-proof’ our client’s methods.
“Hydrogen and nitrogen are alternatives to helium and more sustainable. Technically speaking hydrogen is a superior carrier gas for the majority of
applications in gas chromatography giving greater speed with no loss of separation power. This has been known for many years yet due to the
potential safety concerns helium has remained the gas of choice. ”
Hydrogen in particular does have a number of benefits. Its optimum efficiency, which is similar to that of helium, is achieved at higher linear
flow rates allowing shorter run times and faster throughput for the laboratory. Hydrogen is also cheaper and more readily available.
Hydrogen is already used within laboratories for gas chromatographic detectors and is therefore already available at the required point of use.
As a result laboratories such as Melbourn Scientific are used to managing the safety issues and have established protocols accordingly.
Westcott continues; “The cost of helium will inevitably soar as resources diminish. In itself this is not the main issue as far as the Pharmaceutical
Industry is concerned but the potential interruption to supplies certainly will be. Disruption of supplies could have disastrous effects to the smooth
running of the manufacturing process. To avoid the issues around uncertain supply and the significantly increased costs of helium, it is recommended
that the move to hydrogen for gas chromatographic methods should take place as soon as possible.”
Professor Welton agrees:
“For gas chromatography other carrier gasses could be used in a well-controlled environment, swapping to alternatives should be considered.
“However, for MRI machines, currently I do not see that there is any alternative to helium, as there is no other coolant that can go down to
“Here’s where I start my rant about helium balloons. Helium balloons really are as bad as it gets for squandering this resource. I’m probably going a
bit far saying that they’re real evil, but I’m not far off.”
For media enquiries:
Please contact Rachel Holdsworth/Nina Beadle/Claire Lynn, 01954 202789, email@example.com, www.holdsworth-associates.co.uk
Mark Hammond, CEO, Melbourn Scientific Ltd, 01763 261648, www.melbournscientific.com
About Melbourn Scientific http://www.melbournscientific.com
Melbourn Scientific, based near Cambridge UK, provides high quality analytical and formulation services to the pharmaceutical and healthcare
industry. Clients include major pharmaceutical companies, drug delivery innovators, consultants and virtual companies.
Melbourn Scientific has invested continually in the latest equipment and provides a range of services; formulation and product development; method
development and analytical support; stability studies and storage; accelerated feasibility studies, GMP facilities and manufacturing.