Connect with us
Helium Technical Diving Helium Technical Diving

Community

The Price of Helium is Up in the Air

With helium prices on the rise, and limited or no availability in some regions, we decided to conduct a survey of global GUE instructors and dive centers to get a reading on their pain thresholds. We feel your pain—especially you OC divers! InDEPTH editor Ashley Stewart then reached out to the helium industry’s go-to-guy Phil Kornbluth for a prognosis. Here’s what we found out.

Published

on

By Ashley Stewart. Header image by SJ Alice Bennett.

Helium is one of the most abundant elements in the universe, but here on Earth, it’s the only element considered a nonrenewable resource. The colorless, odorless, and tasteless inert gas is generated deep underground through the natural radioactive decay of elements such as uranium and thorium in a process that takes many millennia. Once it reaches the Earth’s surface, helium is quickly released into the atmosphere—where it’s deemed too expensive to recover—and rises until it ultimately escapes into outer space. 

Luckily for divers who rely on the non-narcotic and lightweight gas for deep diving (not to mention anyone who needs an MRI scan or who uses virtually any electronic device), some helium mixes with natural gas underground and can be recovered through drilling and refinement.

Yet the world’s helium supply depends primarily on just 15 liquid helium production facilities around the globe, making the industry uniquely prone to supply chain disruptions, which this year caused the industry’s fourth prolonged shortage since 2006. The shortage has caused many technical dive shops around the world to raise prices, limit fills, or stop selling trimix altogether, according to an InDEPTH survey of GUE instructors and affiliated dive centers.

Longtime helium industry consultant Phil Kornbluth, however, expects the shortage will begin to ease gradually now through the end of the year, and for supply to increase significantly in the future.

Photo courtesy of Extreme Exposure

While a majority of the world’s helium is produced in just a few countries, a new gas processing plant in Siberia is expected to produce as much as 60 million cubic meters of helium per year, about as much as the US—the world’s largest helium producer—was able to produce in 2020. The Siberian plant ran for three weeks in September, but experienced major disruptions over the past year, including a fire in October and an explosion in January, that delayed its planned opening until at least 2023.

Meanwhile, according to Kornbluth, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Texas closed down from mid-January to early June due to safety, staff, and equipment issues, wiping out at least 10% of the market supply. The plant reopened in June and is back to normal production as of July 10. The supply of helium was further reduced as two of Qatar’s three plants closed down for planned maintenance, a fire paused production at a plant in Kansas, and the war in Ukraine reduced production of one Algerian plant.

With the exception of the plant in Siberia, Kornbluth said virtually all of the recent disruptions to the helium supply chain have been resolved and should yield some relief. And the future looks promising. Once the Siberian plant is online, it’s expected to eventually boost the world’s helium supply by one-third. While sanctions against Russia could prevent some buyers from purchasing the country’s helium, Kornbluth expects there will be plenty of demand from countries that as of now are not participating, like China, Korea, Taiwan, and India, though there could be delays if those countries have to purchase the expensive, specialized cryogenic containers required to transport bulk liquid helium. “Sanctions are unlikely to keep the helium out of the market,” Kornbluth said.

Meanwhile, there are at least 30 startup companies exploring for helium, and there are other projects in the pipeline including in the U.S., Canada, Qatar, Tanzania, and South Africa. “Yes, we’re in a shortage and, yes, it’s been pretty bad, but it should start improving,” Kornbluth told InDEPTH. “The world is not running out of helium anytime soon.” 

THE SURVEY:

To find out how the helium shortage is affecting divers, InDEPTH surveyed Global Underwater Explorers’ (GUE) instructors and dive centers and received 40 responses from around the world. 

The survey’s highest reported helium price was in Bonaire—a Dutch island in the Caribbean that imports its helium from the Netherlands—where helium costs as much as US$0.14 Liter(L)/$4.00 cubic foot (cf) and is expected to rise. At that price, a set of trimix 18/45 (18% O2, 45% He) in double HP100s (similar to D12s) would cost around $360.00 and trimix 15/55 would cost $440.00.

“We have enough to support both open circuit and CCR, but in the near future, if the situation remains, we may be forced to supply only CCR divers,” Bonaire-based GUE instructor German “Mr. G.” Arango told InDEPTH. “We have enough for 2022, but 2023 is hard to predict.”

Not far behind Bonaire was the Philippines, where helium costs around US$0.13 L/$3.68 cf—if you can even get it. Based on the responses to our survey, Asia is experiencing the greatest shortages. Supply is unavailable in some parts of the Philippines, limited in South Korea, and unavailable for diving purposes in Japan as suppliers are prioritizing helium in the country for medical uses, according to four instructors from the region. In Australia, it’s relatively easy to obtain.

Four US-based instructors reported that helium prices are increasing significantly and supply is decreasing. Helium remains “very limited” in Florida and prices in Seattle increased to $2.50 from $1.50 per cubic foot ($0.09 L from about $0.05 L) in the past six months, and there was a period when the region couldn’t get helium as suppliers were prioritizing medical uses. In Los Angeles, prices have reached as high as $2.80 cf (nearly $0.10 L) and one instructor reported helium is only available for hospitals and medical purposes, even for long-term gas company clients who are grandfathered in. Another Los Angeles-based instructor said direct purchases of helium had been limited to one T bottle per month, down from three. 

“Currently, we are only providing trimix fills for our CCR communities,” GUE instructor Steven Millington said. “Possibly this will change, but the current direction for active technical divers is CCR. I agree (and already see) that open circuit technical diving in some regions will go the way of the dinosaur.”

In Western Europe, helium is becoming more difficult and expensive to acquire, 10 instructors in the region told us. Instructors in the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, and Germany reported longer wait times, high price increases, and limited supply. 

Meanwhile, Northern Europe appears to be a bright spot on the map with comparatively reasonable prices and general availability. In Norway, two instructors reported helium is easy to obtain, with no lead time from suppliers. Likewise in Sweden and Finland, though one Finnish instructor told us that in the past year prices have increased significantly.

Three instructors in Northern Africa and the Middle East said helium is easy to get, but is becoming more expensive. The price of Sofnolime used in rebreathers is increasing in Egypt as helium becomes more expensive and more difficult to obtain. Lebanon has minimal lead times, but helium is among the most expensive in all of the responses we received at US$0.10 L/$2.83 cf.

Helium is generally easy to obtain in Mexico, though prices are increasing dramatically and instructors are starting to see delays. In Brazil, prices in São Paulo quadrupled in the past 12 months and by 30% in Curitiba. Suppliers there aren’t accepting new customers and existing customers are having difficulty obtaining supply. Supply is mostly constrained in Canada, with the exception of one outlier: an instructor who has a longstanding account with the gas company and pays less than US$ 0.035 L/$1.00 cf. “I have been hearing of helium shortage every year for the last decade,” instructor Michael Pinault of Brockville Ontario told InDEPTH, “but I have never not been able to purchase it.”

Many instructors around the world said that helium shortages and skyrocketing prices are, no surprise, fueling a shift to CCR for individual divers and exploration projects. “CCR is saving our exploration projects,” GUE instructor Mario Arena, who runs exploration projects in Europe, said. “These projects would be impossible without it.”

Please let us know what helium prices and availability are in your area: InDEPTH Reader Helium survey

Additional Resources

US Geological Survey: Helium Data Sheet: Mineral Commodity Summaries 2021

NPR: The World Is Constantly Running Out Of Helium. Here’s Why It Matters (2019)

The Diver Medic: The Future of Helium is Up in the Air,” Everything you wanted to know about helium, but were too busy analyzing your gas to ask—talk by InDEPTH chief Michael Menduno


InDepth Managing Editor Ashley Stewart is a Seattle-based journalist and tech diver. Ashley started diving with Global Underwater Explorers and writing for InDepth in 2021. She is a GUE Tech 2 and CCR1 diver and on her way to becoming an instructor. In her day job, Ashley is an investigative journalist reporting on technology companies. She can be reached at: ashley@gue.com


Enjoying InDEPTH? Consider buying us a coffee so we can continue to provide you with insanely great content!

Community

To Be, or Not to Be a CCR diver: How I made the choice

Published

on

By

By InDEPTH editors

Photo courtesy of Matthew Charlesworth.

Over the past few months in the pages of InDEPTH, dive-industry experts have waged a debate about the future of open-circuit technical diving. Physiologist Neal Pollock wrote that CCR should be the platform of choice for big dives and Global Underwater Explorers Chairman Jarrod Jablonski told InDEPTH “anyone doing anything of merit” will do so on CCR. TDI instructor trainer and tech pioneer Richard Taylor argues that open circuit technical diving is not dead and remains an essential skill that should be mandatory for CCR divers. GUE instructor Guy Shockey took a deep dive into the economics of closed vs open circuit diving. 

InDEPTH asked new technical or CCR divers to tell us how they went about making the decision as to when and why to make the switch from open circuit. Below are responses some of these divers sent to us, edited for length and clarity.


Carl Gosselin, Montreal, Canada plans to take GUE’s CCR1 program instead of its advanced open-circuit technical diving class: I’m a goal-oriented person. A few years ago, when I was ready to jump into technical diving and selected Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) as my training provider, I structured my training as a path towards diving the R.M.S. Empress of Ireland (length 170m, bottom depth 40m), a Tech 1 range wreck near the mouth of the Saint-Lawrence River here in Canada.”

Now that this goal has been achieved, I’m ready to set a new goal for the next level diving in the GUE’s Tech 2 range (170 to 250+ feet). Luckily for me, the Great Lakes between the US and Canada have a lot of interesting wrecks to offer the Canadian diver looking to explore without traveling too far. The northern side of Lake Superior is the resting place of the S.S. Gunilda, one of the world’s best-preserved wrecks according to the Cousteau Society. The Gunilda lies at a depth of 80 meters so that dive requires a tech 2 level certifications.”

What are the paths towards diving the depths of the Gunilda in the GUE curriculum? I can go the classical route and take the Tech 2 class or go toward the CCR training but then need both GUE CCR1 and CCR2 training classes and perform 50 CCR1 level (Same as Tech 1) experience dives between CCR1 and CCR2.”

Considering only time, the choice is easy—pass one GUE training (Tech 2) and I get to reach my goal. It’s easy to see that doing the Tech 2 class will get me to the Gunilda faster, but is it the most efficient avenue to pursue? Will this investment in both my time and money be the best in the long run? What other factors should I consider?”

The logistics of tech diving is not discussed often, but it is a major headache. Interesting wrecks are rarely easily accessible; nor are they near a dive shop. Gear needs to be transported to the dive site or hauled onto a boat. Often multiple dives are required to fully experience a wreck. My experience on the Empress of Ireland, still just a Tech 1 dive, required the transport of three sets of D16 with (Trimix 21/35) and four stages (Nitrox 50%) and 100% oxygen (surface safety) for about 90 min of bottom time. I currently do not have a full dive plan for a dive trip on the Gunilda, but my guess is I will need more gear to manage the depth safely. There are other options to traveling with your gear, but renting also has disadvantages. First, it needs to be available at your destination, but mostly it’s not your gear. If a rebreather-based diving configuration helps me standardize and minimize my technical diving gear requirements, that’s a major incentive to start now on the CCR training path.”

The major drawback of CCR diving are the starting costs: the training and acquisition costs of one’s first unit. But if you’re an avid diver, diving deep or for very long, these costs might be just an investment that will be recovered over time. With the rising costs of helium, being more efficient on this resource will keep narrowing this investment gap.

So, maybe it will take me a little longer to get to dive the Gunilda, but I’ll be able to experience it completely when I do. No more dilemma.

Nadia L. Garibaldi or California, USA, chose to take CCR1 instead of Tech 2: I chose CCR because I’d like to travel and do tech dives and the cost of helium when traveling I think makes CCR worth it. 

Also, gas logistics are easier with CCR. For example, driving somewhere to dive with OC means bringing a truckload of gases and often many sets of doubles with different mixes. Instead, CCR enables me to bring just some bailout bottles and figure out what the exact plan is when I get there. In California, we drive to Monterey, Tahoe, Lake Mead, and usually with OC it’s a truckload of tanks.

Finally, I do want to do deeper T2-level dives eventually too. I don’t know that the cost is so much of a concern for me because I wouldn’t be doing T2 dives with a high level of frequency. It is nice not having to bring two sets of bottles for two dives though. 

All this was what pushed me into CCR, but the zen, perfect stillness, and silence is delightful!

Martin C. Wright of Weggis, Switzerland believes his open circuit experience helped with CCR: I first went OC Trimix (TDI Advanced) before going the CCR route (now CMAS Switzerland JJ-CCR normoxic TMX).

The path wasn’t so clear-cut as it might be today. I am a CMAS 3-star sports diver (which includes decompression diving as opposed to the US recreational system). However, deeper wrecks such as the Hirondelle in the lake of Geneva called for approaches beyond nitrox diving. This was around the time when the Buddy Inspiration appeared on the market. Due to its price and the initially somber image of ‘yellow box of death’ kept it from being a consideration, so I went the OC technical path.

A couple of years later, a shoulder injury prevented me from reaching my left valve. This was luckily at a time when rising helium prices had me taking a closer look at CCRs. That’s how I got to CCR. Valves are easy to reach for me (in the standard configuration) plus all the other benefits.

Although my OC experience was a bit of a hindering factor to come to grips with CCR buoyancy control and ascents in the beginning, I feel it is a safety factor. Bailing out OC is even harder than regular OC diving, due to the additional requirement of controlling the loop volume … solid OC skills plus stage handling over many dives won’t hurt, and I don’t see how you would get this in a CCR class.

Pedro Boria, Chicago, Illinois, USA
I am TEC 50 /Full Cave and JJ CCR Diver TDI. Just got my GUE Tec pass and my plan is to continue CCR training with GUE for the same reasons described in the article [The Economics of Choosing CCR vs OC]. The biggest reason is the cost of helium and bottom time. In the Chicago area, helium is $3.00 cf/$0.10 L and I dive LP 104s. 

Continue Reading

Thank You to Our Sponsors

Subscribe

Education, Conservation, and Exploration articles for the diving obsessed. Subscribe to our monthly blog and get our latest stories and content delivered to your inbox every Thursday.

Latest Features

Trending