At the Oxford Centre for Human Brain Activity, we have had to temporarily shut down our cryogenic laboratory equipment.
Our multimillion-pound magnetoencephalography (MEG) facility must operate at temperatures of near-absolute-zero degrees Kelvin (-273C), but this month they will not be maintained due to yet another interruption in our helium supply – only liquid helium can cool to such extreme temperatures.
This is not the first time we have had to halt operations over the past 12 months, and we fear more difficulties over the coming year.
Despite the apparent abundance of helium as cheap gas for filling party balloons, industrial-grade liquid helium is a precious commodity, and it is increasingly difficult to secure supplies. Intermittent supplies are extremely disruptive to our research programme, and jeopardise the basic viability of the centre.
The US government is currently the largest helium supplier, but in recent years privatisation has led to a rapid sell-off of the National Helium Reserve. This fire-sale has distorted the helium market, causing turmoil in global supplies.
Like so many natural resources, it is inevitable that demand will out-strip supply. Although the time scale of effective helium depletion cannot be predicted with certainty, most estimates range between 30 and 50 years. Alternatives are available for some usages. For many cryogenics uses, however, there is no equivalent. Without helium, there is simply no other way to cool matter so close to absolute zero.
Mark Stokes is a senior research fellow in psychiatry and experimental psychology at Oxford University