Helium in High-demand, Short Supply: Negative Effect on Quantum Computing Research. Helium is used to keep most quantum computers at extremely cold temperatures. This summer, expect there to be a shortage of helium. There is a silver-lining, sort of. The type needed by quantum computers is a one time cost. Qubit.
Compared to NMR magnets, and similar (N)MRI machines used in healthcare, cooling quantum computers does not require replenishing helium. However, the type—or isotope—required by quantum computers is different. Quantum computers require near-absolute-zero cooling to reduce interference from noise on individual qubits in the system, which can adversely impact performance.
“Getting to that temperature requires a special kind of lightweight helium, Helium-3. That’s helium missing a neutron, so it is about 25% lighter than the helium we use for high-volume applications such as inflation and welding,” Martin Reynolds, distinguished research vice president at Gartner, told TechRepublic. “[Helium-3] doesn’t exist in natural helium deposits, so we have to make it using a nuclear reactor. In the US, there is only one supplier—the government—because the manufacturing and use are tightly controlled.”
Demand for Helium-3 has increased, as neutron detectors deployed by security agencies at borders and checkpoints rely on that isotope, with demand as high as 70,000 liters per year, according to TechLink, an organization that assists in licensing inventions from the Department of Defense to private industry. Likewise, TechLink notes that specialized rectangular gas tubes can use a combination of Helium-3 and Xenon gas, allowing the detectors to be built with smaller amounts of Helium-3, providing “an estimated cost savings of $20,000 to $30,000 per detector.”
The effects of the larger helium shortage are unlikely to affect the quantum industry, as Helium-3 represents only a “one-time cost at the time the system is manufactured, reflecting a very small part of the overall system cost,” according to Alan Baratz, executive vice president of R&D and chief product officer at quantum computer manufacturer D-Wave Systems.