Helium supply: Not up, up, up

By Rachel Robinson
Associate Editor WaferNews

The word “over” has been used recently to describe current problems within the semiconductor industry – oversupply, overcapacity, etc.

But in some areas, too much isn’t the problem – too little is.

Over the next few years, the industry will be dealing with a shortage in helium, and while it’s not a major crisis, it is a source of concern, especially for the
lithography sector.

“For the next two to three years, expectations are that helium volumes will be tight,” said Joe Stockunas, worldwide marketing director at Air Products and Chemicals Inc., Allentown, PA.

In the 1930’s, helium was deemed a material that was critical to national security. It was controlled by the government, and stored and produced by the Bureau of Land Management for national defense. However, in the mid-1990s, the government decided to privatize the sale of helium, a decision that will greatly impact both the availability in the short term, and the cost of helium in the long term.

“The privatization of the sale of helium will increase cost because it’s a free market economy,” noted Stockunas. Neil Gayle, manager of supplier relations at International SEMATECH, agreed, adding that the cost issue will become important in years to come.

Currently, helium usage is growing at a rate of 5 to 7% per year, while the availability of helium is growing at a 2% rate, Stockunas told WaferNews.

That’s a problem, noted Gayle.

“Based on the demand rate,” he said, “you’ll need a new plant about every 18 months to support that type of growth, and that is not happening.”

Helium is an interesting material, explained Stockunas, because unlike most bulk gases, it cannot be extracted from the atmosphere. It is found in certain natural gas wells, which contain less than 1% helium. Those wells are located in the Texas panhandle and western Kansas. Outside the US, they are located only in Algeria and Poland. Stockunas said that in order to keep up with demand, helium would have to be manufactured in Algeria. Due to the current state of affairs in that area of the world, however, production has yet to get going.

The semiconductor sector uses only 2% of all helium produced, according to Gayle. That 2% is used in front end of line semiconductor processes, such as lithography, furnace anneal and plasma etch, as well as leak detection. The sector that utilizes the most helium is the fiber optics market, which uses 15%.

“If the growth in the fiber optics market had stayed as it was in2000, it would be an ever bigger problem,” Stockunas remarked.

In order to deal with the shortage, Air Products and Chemicals, one of the largest suppliers of helium, is working closely with customers to make sure that their needs are met. “We’re working with customers to have them convey what they need, and we’re contracting for it,” explained Stockunas.

He added that while they have developed some recycling programs for the fiber optics markets, they are not practical for the lithography sector.

According to both Stockunas and Gayle, the shortage of helium seems to be a short-term problem, which can be handled with good communication between vendors and suppliers. “Sources [for manufacturing] helium are being developed,” Gayle said, “but in terms of getting them online, it’ll take till 2005.”

While the helium shortage does seem to be raising a few eyebrows throughout the semiconductor processing sector, panic is not setting in.

“In talking to people,” Gayle told WaferNews, “my sense is that there is concern, but I believe that semiconductor manufacturers are working closely with providers to try to minimize the overall impact. There is a problem, but it’s not being viewed as a major crisis.”



Easily post a comment below using your Linkedin, Twitter, Google or Facebook account. Comments won't automatically be posted to your social media accounts unless you select to share.