When I say helium, you might think balloons. But the fact is, helium has become such a hot commodity that some even call it liquid gold. Scott Thuman explains, reporting from the mountains of Arizona.
The following is a transcript of a report from “Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson.” Watch the video by clicking the link at the end of the page.
Scott Thuman: This is pretty out there, huh?
Robert Rohlfing: Yeah. I started in ’99, walking and driving, doing geology out there.
Robert Rohlfing is what you might call a modern-day prospector, only he’s not looking for gold or oil.
Rohlfing: I did a lot of research looking for and checking water wells, looking for trace amounts of helium. And that is where I decided to concentrate.
This tiny but complex compound, owned by Desert Mountain Energy, is about three hours northwest of Phoenix, Arizona.
Rohlfing: We are the first ones to have built a solar-powered helium extraction plant. No one else has done it. We’re the first in the world. And we’re not some big multi-billion dollar company yet, by any means.
Scott: Why helium? Why does it matter so much?
Rohlfing: Most people think of helium and balloons. That’s the first thing that comes to mind. That is one of the last things we need to be using helium for. It is in a shortage. The number one use for helium: cool the magnets on an MRI. Number two, CAT scans.
Making the invisible gas nearly impossible to live without. And it’s not only hospitals that rely on helium for high-tech scanners; the space industry uses it to pressurize and guide rockets. It’s also a crucial ingredient for manufacturing semiconductor chips, from the kind in our smartphones to those used in military defense systems.
Scott: We’re talking about a really critical resource?
Rohlfing: It is, and it’s in a very definite short supply.
U.S. shortages were triggered when President Clinton signed a law, transferring away federal control of helium production and distribution.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a further setback to global supplies. Russia sits on top of the largest reserve of helium in the world. Sanctions will shut down almost all of that supply.
Scott: So just how big is the demand? Well, Robert and his team say they could build about 300 more of these plants, and that still wouldn’t meet all of North America’s needs.
In Phoenix, the need is real. A $40 billion semiconductor plant being built by a Taiwanese company is slated to open in 2025. Without helium, the factory will not operate.
Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO): It’s very concerning that there is a growing global shortage of helium.
Congressman Doug Lamborn is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Lamborn: Our modern weapons platforms would not be able to exist without what semiconductors produce with the intelligence and the computing power that they generate. So, you could say helium is essential to our national defense.
In the 1920s, the U.S. government started managing a strategic helium reserve, located in a natural rock formation spanning from Texas to Kansas. It once held about 40% of the global supply. When President Clinton privatized the industry, gas in the reserve was auctioned off.
Now, under President Biden’s administration, the whole system has been auctioned off, stoking fears of further shortages.
Lamborn: American producers and the free market and commerce will take care of the situation eventually. Higher prices will mean more exploration and production.
Scott: People would call oil liquid gold. What do you call helium? Is it valuable like that?
Rohlfing: It’s more valuable.
Even more reason, he says, to keep the industry alive and well in the United States.
For Full Measure, I’m Scott Thuman, in Arizona.
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