Why The Qatar Crisis Could Be Bad For Science, Medicine, and Children's Parties

MRI machines rely on supercooling with liquid helium, something that may be threatened by the Qatar crisis. Gagliardilmages/Shutterstock 

Qatar, the Arabian country currently in conflict with its neighbors, is mostly known as a producer of vast quantities of natural gas, the richest (by some measures) nation in the world, and the dubious choice for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. However, it has a lesser known feature, one that makes it of vital importance to science – it produces a quarter of the world's helium, which many scientific and medical instruments depend on.

The universe has plenty of helium – a lot was formed in the Big Bang, and the Sun makes 544 million tonnes (600 million tons) every second. However, it is so light that all of the original helium from the birth of the Solar System has long since escaped Earth. Fortunately, new helium is being made all the time, since it is a by-product of many radioactive decay processes. Large quantities have been trapped in underground reservoirs, often the same places that host a lot of natural gas.

Some gas drillers separate out the helium and sell or store it. Others, particularly those with low helium to methane ratios, have decided that the cost of extraction and export is not worth the money they can make. Qatar produces less than 3 percent of the world's methane, so the crisis poses little threat to natural gas prices.

However, having made the decision to go down the helium-separating task, Qatar has grabbed 25 percent of that market, which means the crisis has a lot of people worried. As part of its efforts to bring the tiny nation to heel, Saudi Arabia cut off the pathway through which Qatar's helium exports were running. For three weeks in June, Qatar shut down its helium production. Now, it is back online, but exports are running via Oman, which is a slower and more expensive route.

Since Qatar appears highly unlikely to give in to the Saudi Arabia ultimatum, the situation could escalate, and Oman may come under pressure to join the blockade.

Compared to the possibility of the conflict bringing on a world war, or at least a Middle Eastern-wide war, that might seem a trivial concern, but helium is used for much more than turtle-killing party balloons and making your voice go squeaky. Helium's staggeringly low freezing point means it can be used to cool scientific equipment to temperatures that can't practically be reached any other way.

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