APS News

Trial Balloon on Helium Purchasing Plan Launched

The American Physical Society has helped initiate a test program that would enable researchers to procure vital supplies of helium at reasonable cost. 

June 13, 2014

APS is partnering with the American Chemical Society (ACS) and the US defense department's procurement agency to secure lower helium prices for researchers. The three groups are working on setting up a group-purchasing plan for scientists with federal grants so scientists can pool their market influence.

"Academic users don't have any real purchasing power when it comes to liquid helium," said Mark Elsesser, a policy analyst at APS. "The idea is to pool the academic users…and have an agency broker the helium on their behalf."

Helium is an important component to many experiments, and in liquid form is often used to chill experiments to near absolute zero temperatures. However, recent federal action will cause helium prices to climb significantly. To help protect scientists at small labs, APS and ACS are partnering with the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), the organization that procures weapons, repair parts, and other supplies for the Department of Defense (DOD).

"It turns out that they have the rights and abilities to procure supplies for anybody with a federal contract," Elsesser said.

The DLA already buys enough helium for the DOD to compete with industry in negotiating low helium prices. Once the full program is up and running, scientists with a federal contract or grant can sign up to buy helium from the DLA for lower rates than would be otherwise available to them on their own.

Altogether, scientists only use about two to three percent of the helium consumed in the United States annually, while most of it goes for industrial manufacturing and MRI machines. Big scientific institutions like Fermilab or Brookhaven have the large purchasing power to negotiate competitive rates from helium suppliers, but smaller institutions don't wield the same influence.

"The people who are most vulnerable are the bench-top scientists who have one or two helium cryostats," said Moses Chan, a low-temperature researcher at Penn State University. "Those are the people who sometimes have to pay the very very high prices."

The consortium is in the process of organizing a small yearlong pilot program with the DLA that is likely to include about 10 to 15 academic groups. The idea is to get a diverse lineup of users to see which researchers the DLA can best serve.

"It's going to be a new program, a new trial, so there could be some growing pains," Elsesser said. "The program is not going to be for everybody."

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees the US helium reserve, has supplied 40 percent of domestic helium for years. Because of legislation passed in 1996, it has been selling its supply at below-market rates, which helped cause a helium shortage over the last couple of years.

Legislation passed last year allowed the BLM to sell its supply at rates in line with the market. This helped correct many of the shortages, but over the long term, helium costs will continue to rise.

The group-purchasing program would complement the existing program that lets federally funded scientists buy discounted helium from commercial suppliers that buy from the BLM. Scientists in the program complained about the paperwork involved, and also said that deliveries were sometimes unreliable and that costs kept creeping higher. The new group-purchasing program is meant to open up another avenue for federal researchers to buy discounted helium, one with more stringent supply line and cost controls.

The consortium is just beginning its search for users, and hopes to have groups chosen for the pilot program by the beginning of next year, with shipments starting a few months after that. If all goes well, the full program should come online sometime in 2016.

Scientists interested in applying to participate in the pilot program can contact Mark Elesser at elesser@aps.org or can visit the program's website.

Related Information

Gray arrow Last Minute Legislation Averts Helium Supply Crisis - APS News, November 2013