This chapter examines the various current and future uses of helium. The current applications are divided into the main categories used by BLM to track domestic helium usage in 1996 (Figure 3.1): cryogenics, pressurizing and purging, welding, atmospheric control, leak detection, breathing mixtures, lifting, and other uses. Each section will discuss the application for which helium is used, the reason for its use, the volume of gas employed, and the prospects for conserving helium or using substitutes. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the potential future applications that may require helium and the overarching issues that surround the tracking of helium usage.
The U.S. Department of the Interior releases annual reports that discuss the supply and demand for helium. The domestic helium consumption portion of these reports is based on surveys, conducted every 5 years or so, of helium wholesalers. These surveys track domestic use in 18 categories. Although the gross amount of helium exported is known, there is only sparse information on its end uses. Even less is known about foreign production of helium. The last survey of domestic helium wholesalers was in 1995 and the one before that was in 1991. Helium use is estimated using the results of these surveys as a baseline.
One problem that the committee confronted in analyzing the trends in helium usage during the 1980s is that the Department of the Interior reduced the number of categories of helium use it reported from 13 to 7—even though it currently collects data on 18 categories. This aggregation of the data made it difficult for the committee to follow helium use over time within each category. A second problem with the data reported since 1994 is wild variation from year to year in the estimates of the percent of helium consumed in each category. For instance, the percent of helium in the "other" category was reported to be stable at about 11 percent from 1985 to 1993. It jumped to about 22 percent in 1994 and then declined to 18 percent in 1995 and 13 percent in 1996.