Our research is on ice due to shortage of helium
Friday 04 January 2013
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
- 1 Cara Delevigne addresses awkward interview on Good Day Sacramento
- 2 Top Gear team of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May officially heading to Amazon Prime for new car show
- 3 Stuart Baggs: Apprentice star 'The Brand' found dead aged 27
- 4 How to cancel Amazon Prime: after Top Gear hiring, how to leave premium service
- 5 MH370 debris: Investigators 'confident' that Boeing 777 wing found - live updates
Kate Winslet thanked 'particularly horrible' girl who bullied her at school after Titanic success
Cara Delevigne addresses awkward interview on Good Day Sacramento
Stuart Baggs: Apprentice star 'The Brand' found dead aged 27
MH370: Boeing 777 wing that could match missing plane found on the French island of Reunion
MH370 debris: Investigators 'confident' that Boeing 777 wing found - live updates
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn – or a return to a Labour government
Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn says 'we can learn a great deal from Karl Marx'
I am the Jeremy Corbyn supporter that many will tell you doesn't exist
Public anger after French sunbather beaten up by gang for wearing a bikini in Reims park
Labour leadership: New poll shows party is now even 'less electable' than under Ed Miliband
Calais crisis: For desperate migrants it is 'England or death' as they brave dogs, riot police and speeding trains
£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...
£26000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...
Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to on-going expansion, this leading provid...
£6 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a family ...