Helium often plays understudy to other elements or serves a supporting function in modern technologies. Nevertheless, in a select few applications, it is irreplaceable.
That helium is the second-most abundant element in the universe would seem a boon to the industries that rely on the gas. But because it easily escapes the Earth's atmosphere, helium is rarer on the land below. The gas is typically isolated for commercial applications during the extraction and purification of natural gas, where it can occur in concentrations of up to 7 percent. Only a few companies worldwide extract the gas, however, leaving the helium market vulnerable to abrupt changes in the supply chain, often at the hands of politics. Uncertainty over U.S. helium policy in recent years has raised concerns about supply, causing consumers to look for ways to diversify their sources. And now that Qatar, another key producer, is at the center of an international diplomatic crisis, the threat of supply disruption will only grow....
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