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.
The superconducting magnets in MRI machines, the Large Hadron Colider, supersonic wind tunnels, and space telescopes are just some of the technologies that depend on it. After a surge in prices around 2013, many labs started recycling their helium, but the gas has an extraordinary escape capacity, so this approach only goes so far.
If some of the gas fields that currently let their helium escape chose to capture and sell it instead, the problem would go away, at least for the short term. However, this may only be a temporary fix. For the moment, the rise of solar and wind is eating into coal consumption, but eventually these technologies will have to start displacing methane consumption if the world is to have any chance of getting climate change under control. At that point, the world's helium supplies could come under pressure.
The discovery last year of a much richer helium field in Tanzania, with hopes that this could be indicative of more to come, might resolve that problem, but it is too early to be sure.
In the meantime, the world has got by on US helium reserves built up in the years when demand for helium was low. Organizations such as the British Medical Association, however, fear these stocks are being sold off too cheaply, allowing people to waste a gas that will become horrendously expensive when the reserves are exhausted.
The combination of its status as a byproduct of a much more economically significant commodity and the overhang from a never-to-be repeated reserve, means helium has proved unusually difficult to price correctly. Qatar could be a warning that we need to get our act together on this topic if we want to go on being able to probe everything from brain activity to distant galaxies.