China opens first large-scale helium plant as it tries to reduce reliance on US imports

China opens first large-scale helium plant as it tries to reduce reliance on US imports

  • The noble gas is used to make hi-tech products, and nearly all of it comes from elsewhere – mainly America
  • New facility will produce a fraction of China’s needs, but its relatively low cost means more could be built

China is a step closer to reducing its dependency on the imported helium it uses to make hi-tech products, according to scientists working at a new facility in the northwest of the country.

They say they are extracting helium from the waste product of natural gas at the plant, and it could be the key to mass production in China.

Helium is a noble gas, meaning it is stable and unlikely to react with other elements, even in an extreme environment. It is lightweight, colourless, and a rare resource.Nearly all helium used in China – whether to pump fuel for its huge Long March-5 rocket, to protect metal during welding, to produce laser light, or to create the super-clean environment needed to make computer chips – comes from elsewhere, mostly the United States or US-owned facilities in other countries.

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The new factory, which started operating on Tuesday last week, could be about to change that.

Located inside a natural gas processing plant in Yanchi county, Ningxia, it is the first facility in China that can produce helium at a commercial scale, according to a statement from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which designed and built it.