How helium shortages will impact quantum computer research

As researchers and the medical industry brace for helium shortages this summer, James Sanders explores the impact on quantum computer research.

How helium shortages will impact quantum computer research

Shortages of liquid helium are beginning to cause anxiety for researchers, as the third major supply constraint since 2006 is affecting everyone from medical laboratories to party supply stores due to higher prices and rationing from vendors. Despite helium being the second most abundant element in the universe, there are only 14 liquid helium production facilities in the world--with around 75% of that consumed worldwide produced in Ras Laffan Industrial City in Qatar, an ExxonMobil facility in Wyoming, and facilities owned by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM), according to GasWorld.

With the privatization of the helium market--a process that started in 1996--coming to fruition in 2020, private industry has played a larger role in ensuring helium supply in the US. As the National Helium Reserve spins down operations, the amount of crude helium left to sell has decreased--though it has traditionally sold around 59 million cubic centimeters (mcm) each year since 2004, pressure decreases as more is extracted, slowing extraction, according to Physics Today, which quotes the BLM as expecting to deliver "around 20 mcm this year, a little more than half the 2016 amount."

SEE: Quantum computing: An insider's guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The BLM estimates that they supply "over 40% of domestic demand for helium." Critically, the ExxonMobil facilities in Wyoming are scheduled for maintenance this summer, partially shutting down production for an extended period of time. As a result, helium supplies will tighten significantly more than they already have, putting strain on devices like nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) magnets, which require 60 liters of liquid helium every eight weeks--at the risk of damage or losing strength, repairs for which require 1,000 liters of helium, according to Physics Today.

How quantum computers rely on helium

Compared to NMR magnets, and similar (N)MRI machines used in healthcare, cooling quantum computers does not require replenishing helium. However, the type--or isotope--required by quantum computers is different. Quantum computers require near-absolute-zero cooling to reduce interference from noise on individual qubits in the system, which can adversely impact performance.

"Getting to that temperature requires a special kind of lightweight helium, Helium-3. That's helium missing a neutron, so it is about 25% lighter than the helium we use for high-volume applications such as inflation and welding," Martin Reynolds, distinguished research vice president at Gartner, told TechRepublic. "[Helium-3] doesn't exist in natural helium deposits, so we have to make it using a nuclear reactor. In the US, there is only one supplier--the government--because the manufacturing and use are tightly controlled."

Demand for Helium-3 has increased, as neutron detectors deployed by security agencies at borders and checkpoints rely on that isotope, with demand as high as 70,000 liters per year, according to TechLink, an organization that assists in licensing inventions from the Department of Defense to private industry. Likewise, TechLink notes that specialized rectangular gas tubes can use a combination of Helium-3 and Xenon gas, allowing the detectors to be built with smaller amounts of Helium-3, providing "an estimated cost savings of $20,000 to $30,000 per detector."

The effects of the larger helium shortage are unlikely to affect the quantum industry, as Helium-3 represents only a "one-time cost at the time the system is manufactured, reflecting a very small part of the overall system cost," according to Alan Baratz, executive vice president of R&D and chief product officer at quantum computer manufacturer D-Wave Systems.

Though commodities pricing can impact the production and sale of systems, fluctuations in silicon prices throughout the history of microprocessors and traditional computers "[haven't] even made a dent in the success story, from today's perspective," according to Holger Mueller, principal analyst at Constellation Research, adding "there are much bigger problems to solve for quantum computer than commodities that are key to build them, for now."

For more on quantum computing, check out "Quantum computer components: Learn the basics," as well as TechRepublic's cheat sheet for quantum computing.

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Image: iStock/agsandrew