How Helium Shortages Will Affect Quantum Computing Research

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

Shortages of liquid helium are starting to worry researchers, as the third major supply constraint since 2006 affects everyone from medical labs to party supply stores, due to higher prices and supplier rationing. Although helium is 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 globally produced at 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 began in 1996 – which came to fruition in 2020, private industry has taken on a greater role in securing the supply of helium to the United States. As the National Helium Reserve slows down operations, the amount of raw helium left for sale has declined – although it has traditionally sold around 59 million cubic centimeters (mcm) each year since 2004, the pressure is declining to as it is mined, slowing extraction, according to Physics Today, which quotes the BLM as expecting to deliver “about 20 million mcm this year, just over half of 2016’s amount.”

SEE: Quantum Computing: An Insider’s Guide (Free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The BLM estimates that they supply “more than 40% of the domestic demand for helium”. Importantly, ExxonMobil’s Wyoming facility is due for maintenance this summer, which will result in partial production shutdown for an extended period. As a result, helium supplies will tighten much more than they already have, straining devices like nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) magnets, which require 60 liters of liquid helium every eight weeks. – at the risk of damaging or losing strength, repairs for which require 1,000 liters of helium, according to Physics Today.

How quantum computers depend on helium

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

“Reaching this temperature requires a special type of light helium, helium-3. Helium lacks a neutron, so it’s about 25% lighter than the helium we use for high volume applications such as inflation and welding, ”Martin Reynolds, senior vice president of research at Gartner, TechRepublic said. “[Helium-3] does not exist in natural helium deposits, so we have to make it using a nuclear reactor. In the United States, there is only one supplier – the government – because the manufacture and use is tightly controlled. “

Demand for helium-3 has increased as neutron detectors deployed by security agencies at borders and checkpoints rely on this isotope, with demand of up to 70,000 liters per year, according to TechLink, an organization that helps license inventions from the Ministry of Defense. to private industry. Likewise, TechLink notes that specialty rectangular gas tubes can use a combination of helium-3 and xenon gas, allowing detectors to be constructed with smaller amounts of helium-3, providing “estimated cost savings of $ 20,000 to $ 30,000 per detector “.

The effects of the greater helium shortage are unlikely to affect the quantum industry, as helium-3 is only a “one-time cost at the time of manufacturing the system, reflecting a very small portion of the cost. overall system, ”said Alan Baratz, executive vice president of R&D and product manager at quantum computer maker D-Wave Systems.

Although raw material prices can have an impact on the production and sale of systems, the price of silicon fluctuates throughout the history of traditional microprocessors and computers “[haven’t] even made a dent in the success story, from today’s perspective, “according to Holger Mueller, senior analyst at Constellation Research, adding” there are much bigger problems for the quantum computer to solve. than the commodities that are essential to build them, for now. “

To learn more about quantum computing, see “Quantum Computing Components: Learn the Basics,” as well as TechRepublic’s Quantum Computing Cheat Sheet.

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Image: iStock / agsandrew

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