A shortage in helium supply has been bringing difficulties to various industries, including the semiconductor, medical device, and so-called “root” industries.
"Even if you are willing to pay twice the normal price, you will have difficulty buying helium," said an official of the Korea High Pressure Gas Industry Cooperative Federation on Jan. 7. “If this phenomenon is prolonged, it will have a great negative impact on domestic small and medium-sized manufacturers. The government needs to take proper measures urgently."
The federation says that Korea imports all of helium it needs. It imports 2,000 tons of helium from Qatar, the United States and Russia a year. Last year, it imported 1,500 tons of helium until the third quarter, enough to meet domestic demand. But a red flag was raised in the fourth quarter. Korea’s helium imports suffered a sharp drop due to unstable helium shipments from Qatar, a drop in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM)'s auction volume, and a price surge.
In particular, helium price soared more than 100 percent as a U.S. company seized control of helium supply after winning a U.S. BLM auction with a bid of US$279.95 per 1,000 cubic feet (TCF). The previous highest bidding price was US$119.31 per 1,000 TCF. Auction supply volume also dropped significantly to 210 MCF in 2018 from 500 MCF in 2017.
Helium has thermal conductivity and heat treatability that are 100 times those of copper and is indispensable for production of electronics, semiconductors and liquid crystal displays (LCDs).
Approximately 70 percent of helium imports are supplied to the electronics fields such as semiconductors and displays, 10 percent to the medical equipment sector such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, 7 percent to the optical fiber industry, 5 percent to the ultra low temperature sector, 3% to the laser processing field and 5% to other fields.