Skyrocketing helium prices put hospitals and research under pressure –

Unknown consequence of the war in Ukraine, the price of helium, used by industry, research and hospitals, has risen in recent months. From 17 francs before the crisis, today the liter can reach 100 francs on the free market.

This price increase puts hospitals and the research sector under pressure.

Thus, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva uses helium (a product derived from the extraction of natural gas) to cool the more than 1000 magnets that make up the most powerful particle accelerator in the world.

This “must use at least 130 tons of helium, but by its design, its mode of operation, it has a relatively low loss of 10%”, explained in La Matinale on Monday Frédéric Ferrand, responsible for the supply.

“We have to replenish helium annually and quite regularly to maintain the necessary stock for the operation of the machine. The helium market in 2023 remains quite uncertain”.

CERN fears for its supplies in the coming months, despite the solidity of the contracts concluded with various suppliers, in Switzerland and especially internationally.

Also in hospitals

The tension is also high on the side of hospitals that use this gas to avoid overheating of MRI scanners, and also in connection with medical analyses.

If there really were a serious shortage, the hospitals would of course be prioritized, but the rising price of this resource could increase the cost of services.

Currently, stocks are secured for the next 12 months at HUG in Geneva. At CHUV, the situation is a little more critical: the reserves should only cover the next three months.

Recycling system

There is a way to recover helium, but it requires a very large infrastructure. Currently in French-speaking Switzerland, only EPFL has set up such a recycling system.

It’s a huge network of underground pipes that connect the various machines to a recovery center. This recycling initiative was launched just after the first crisis caused by the 2001 attacks.

These attacks “generated a global crisis in the supply of helium to the point that all research at EPFL and in many other institutions and companies had to be blocked for several months”, explains Stefano Alberti, who is the reason for this recycling initiative. “That’s why a few years later EPFL decided to invest in having a system that can recover helium to always have it available.”

Private requests

At the moment “the crisis forces us to be in a form of rationing. This system makes it possible to have a kind of buffer reserve that allows us to get through crises, to ensure continuity of supplies and at the same time offer prices that are competitive with the market,” Stefano Alberti added.

For now, helium recycled at EPFL is sold to on-site partners. But the school has already received inquiries from public and private companies.

In fact, demand is currently very high in semiconductors, but also in technology to cool data centers that are constantly running at full speed. Other recycling systems could therefore flourish to cope with the shortage.

Sophie Iselin/lan

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