Helium is widely used as a welding shielding gas because it has good thermal conductivity, delivers broader and shallower application penetration pattern during the welding process, and improves wetting of the weld bead. However, with the looming helium shortage, the welding industry is facing some challenges. High demand coupled with limited supplies of helium have led to spiked prices for the industry, and welding training may just look a little bit different in the future.
Causes of the Helium Shortage
Globally, the United States is the biggest supplier of helium; however, production has declined in recent years, in part due to federal actions to dismantle the largest reservoir, the U.S. Helium Federal Reserve . It is scheduled to close in September 2021. This will likely cause a progressive decline in helium production and put more strain on an already limited market. Recently, the Bureau of Land Management conducted its second annual auction of federal helium, offering 18 helium lots to a diverse array of national and international companies.
Despite government efforts to privatize the helium gas supply, the helium shortage has not improved due to a slow response from private companies. New private helium production plants just aren’t being built, and there’s no one to fill the gap. Additional supplies of helium will be a temporary solution. A new helium plant in Algeria and Qatar along with a plant in Big Piney, Wyoming, promise to temporarily increase supply.
What the Helium Shortage Means for the Welding Industry
Current welding technology must adapt and evolve with supplies of helium drying up. Many in the welding industry are seeking alternatives to helium, but it isn’t without challenges. For example, hydrogen can be used in the welding of stainless steel. It has some of the same thermal characteristics of helium. However, working with aluminum using hydrogen hasn’t panned out. For welders, it’s all about finding workable solutions.
Senior development scientist Kevin Lyttle of Praxair explains how customized waveforms can be used as an alternative when helium is lacking. A customized waveform is one that can be adjusted for joint design and welding waveform conditions to meet weld specifications and productions rates. It can tailor a higher voltage peak during the welding process that can improve the heat-transfer characteristics. He reports that the other potential alternatives for helium include:
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- Argon with various percentages of CO2 and nitrogen for gas metal arc welding (GMAW)
- Blends of argon and hydrogen for gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW) with stainless steel
Some weld shops that cannot substitute helium are opting for blends that have a lower percentage of helium or ramping up best practices to reduce helium waste. This includes maintaining proper equipment assembly to avoid high gas flows, surges and leaks. To cut back on helium waste it’s all about proper training. The welding industry and programs at a welder school will have to adapt.
Solutions to the Shortage
Some are skeptical about the helium shortage but it’s real. Dr. Mark Elsesser of the American Physical Society feels helium availability is a critical problem that many industries will continue to face in the coming years. The solutions are to find other alternatives, recycle helium, get private industry on board, use different equipment and conserve the existing helium. The helium shortage is one we cannot ignore.