Why has the price of stable isotopes skyrocketed?

What is contributing to the current price increases of the stable isotopes 13C and 2H and what cost-effective options does Silantes offer? Find out in our case study.

A case study on the current price increases of the stable isotopes 13C and 2H

13C and 2H (deuterium) are stable isotopes of carbon and hydrogen, respectively. These isotopes have slightly different properties than their most abundant natural isotopes (12C and 1H) and are valuable in many scientific disciplines such as NMR spectroscopy and quantitative mass spectrometry. They are used to study a variety of topics, from environmental research to disease diagnostics.

Over the past year, the market for stable isotope labeled chemicals has experienced significant price increases of more than 200%. This trend is particularly noticeable in the prices of basic stable isotope-labeled chemicals such as 13CO2 and D2O, which began to rise in the first half of 2022. Additionally, prices for stable isotope-labeled biomolecules, such as glucose or amino acids, which are essential components of cell culture media, have also seen a notable increase.

Did you know?

In view of the current price development of stable isotope-labeled glucose and D2O, Silantes stable isotope-labeled complex media are a cost-effective alternative to conventional M9 media. Learn more.

But what has triggered this development?

Reduced supplier capacity meets rising demand : Counteracting macroeconomic drivers

Recent geopolitical developments and a change in consumer market behavior are converging and influencing a basic principle of the economy: supply and demand. While demand is significantly increasing (2), capacities on the supplier side are collapsing (1). These counteracting influences lead to an increase in prices (3).

Graph: Price increases of stable isotopes due to  increase in demand and decrease in supply
Increase in demand meets decrease in supply

Increase in demand and decrease in supply lead to higher prices

But let’s take a closer look at this change. What exactly had such a significant impact on supply and demand for 13CO2 and 2H over the past year?

New applications of deuterated and 13C-labeled chemicals are creating a rising demand for 13C and 2H

In the recent past, the areas of application for 13C or deuterated chemicals have expanded considerably. Some of these new applications are described below.

Deuteration of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs)

The Deuterium (D, 2H) atom exerts an inhibitory effect on the drug metabolism rate of the human body. It has been demonstrated to be a safe ingredient in therapeutic drugs. Given the similarity of the chemical properties of deuterium and protium, deuterium can act as a substitute for protium in certain medications.

medicine capsules
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The therapeutic benefits of the drug are not significantly affected by the inclusion of deuterium. Metabolic investigations have indicated that drugs containing deuterium generally maintain complete efficacy and potency. The slower metabolism of drugs containing deuterium, however, often leads to longer-lasting efficacy, smaller or fewer frequent dosages, and reduced side effects.

How does deuterium exert a decelerating influence on drug metabolism? Deuterium is capable of forming stronger chemical bonds within drug molecules compared to protium. Given that the metabolism of drugs frequently involves the breaking of such chemical bonds, a stronger bond implies a slower drug metabolism.

Deuterium oxide serves as starting material for generating various deuterium-labeled compounds, including deuterated Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients.

Deuterated Optical Fiber Cables

During the final phase of fiber optics manufacturing, optical fiber cable is subjected to a deuterium gas treatment. Certain types of fibers are vulnerable to degradation of their optical properties, a phenomenon resulting from chemical reactions with the atoms situated in or around the cable.

optical fiber ethernet cable
Image by Freepik

To mitigate such an issue, deuterium is employed to displace some of the protium present in the fiber cables. This substitution reduces the reaction rate and prevents the degradation of light transmission, which ultimately extends the lifespan of the cable.

Deuteration of silicon semiconductors and microchips

The process of deuterium-protium exchange, utilizing deuterium gas (2H2; D2), is implemented in the production of silicon semiconductors and microchips, which are commonly employed in circuit boards. Deuterium annealing is employed to substitute protium atoms with deuterium, preventing the chemical erosion of chip circuitry and the deleterious effects of the Hot Carrier Effect.

smart-microchip-background-motherboard - image by Rawpixel
Image by rawpixel.com on Freepik

By implementing this process, the life cycle of semiconductors and microchips can be significantly extended and improved, allowing for the fabrication of smaller and higher-density chips.

Deuteration of Organic Light Emitting Diodes (OLEDs)

OLED, an acronym for organic light emitting diode, is a type of thin-film device composed of semiconducting materials that are organic in nature. Compared to conventional light emitting diodes (LEDs), OLED exhibits lower electrical current density and luminance. Although the production cost of OLED is relatively lower than conventional LEDs, its luminosity and lifespan are not as high.

In order to achieve game-changing improvements in OLED technology, substituting protium with deuterium has been found to be a promising approach. This is due to the fact that deuterium strengthens the chemical bonds within the organic semiconducting materials used in OLED, resulting in several advantages:

  • Chemical degradation occurs at a slower rate, leading to a longer device lifetime.
  • Thinner displays can be produced.
  • Displays can be made more flexible.
  • Overall performance and quality of an OLED can be improved.

13C Breath tests

13C breath tests are non-invasive diagnostic tests that are used to detect and diagnose a variety of medical conditions. These tests are based on the fact that when a person ingests a substance containing 13C, it is metabolized by the body and the resulting carbon dioxide is exhaled in the breath.

These new and growing number of applications on one hand meet an increasingly problematic availability of 2H and 13C on the other hand. But what exactly is happening on the side of the 2H and 13C suppliers?

Geopolitical changes are putting great pressure on the availability of the stable isotopes 2H and 13C.

Recent geopolitical events are the main drivers of the effects we are currently witnessing on the supply side of the 13C or 2H labeled chemicals market.

The phase-out of nuclear energy reduces the availability of D2O

D2O, which is also the raw material for deuterated chemicals, plays an important role in CANDU (CANada Deuterium Uranium) reactors. CANDU reactors are among the few reactors that use heavy water as a moderator. The moderator is a substance that reduces the speed of neutrons released in nuclear fission, increasing the likelihood that further nuclear fission will occur.

In recent years, however, several countries have decided to shut down their CANDU reactors or limit their operating lives. Since CANDU reactors are among the largest consumers of D2O, this decision has a serious impact on D2O producers. Many producers find themselves forced to cease production due to the elimination of CANDU reactors. As a result, the supply of D2O for the entire market is decreasing.

The economic sanctions against Russia reduce the availability of 13CO2

13CO2 is the starting material for all synthesis routes of 13C-labeled chemicals. The economic sanctions against Russia have a serious impact on 13CO2 availability, as Russia is one of the world’s largest 13CO2 suppliers.

The sanctions have resulted in many Western companies finding it difficult to do business with Russian 13CO2 suppliers or to continue their existing business relationships. This has led to a reduction in the availability of 13CO2 and thus an increase in the price of 13C-labeled chemicals on the global market.

Environmental polution
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The political decision to phase out nuclear power and the economic sanctions against Russia have permanently reduced the availability of D2O and 13CO2 in Western countries. How should this new situation now be dealt with?

What can be expected in terms of price development for stable isotopes 2H and 13C in the medium term?

From a macroeconomic perspective, either a reduction in demand or an increase in supply is essential to bringing about a price reduction for 2H- or 13C-labeled chemicals in the medium term. A reduction in demand, as shown in this case study, seems unlikely. 13C-labeling and deuteration hold enormous potential in many different technical areas, which is more likely to further increase demand in the medium term.

To stabilize the prices of stable isotopes, increasing the supply of 13CO2 and D2O production is crucial, particularly in Western countries. However, producing these stable isotopes is a complex process since the natural occurrence of 13C and 2H is only around 1.1% and 0.01%, respectively. As a result, intricate highly complex  and cost-intensive procedures are necessary. It can take up to four years to plan, construct and commission a suitable production plant.

In summary, one can assume that the prices for 13C- and 2H-labeled chemicals will not ease in the medium term due to the high demand and the complex manufacturing technologies required to produce them.

Does this mean that there are no solutions for the price increases of stable isotopes in the medium term?

At Silantes, we think there are measures that can be taken to improve the situation.

As the raw material D2O becomes more and more valuable, it is important to use it sparingly and recycle it whenever possible. That’s why Silantes has introduced a D2O recycling program, which allows customers to return their used and depleted D2O in a resource-efficient and environmentally-friendly manner. By participating in this program, D2O users can not only reduce their environmental impact but also cut down on the cost of repurchasing D2O. Learn more about Silantes’ D2O recycling program

In addition, it is important to explore alternative options to stable isotope-labeled chemicals like 13C glucose and D2O, especially for academic applications. One such alternative is the use of stable isotope-labeled complex media, which can be obtained as by-products of biotechnological processes. The isotopically labeled biomass produced at Silantes is a perfect nutrient medium for bacteria and yeasts, eliminating the need for expensive 13C glucose or D2O.

Silantes Rich Growth Media

Visit our webshop to find out more about our isotope-labeled complex media for bacteria and yeasts.

Learn more about applications for Silantes Growth Media:
Applying Silantes Cell Growth Media to study Human RNA Modification Dynamics
Use of stable isotope labeled growth media for protein and lipid NMR analyses