Consider helium conservation

2008-07-22

in Economics, Geek stuff, Science, The environment

Alena Prazak and Emily Horn

All the helium on Earth arose from natural fission of uranium and thorium in the planet’s crust and mantle. We can access it only through certain natural gas deposits – many of them in Texas – which contain enough of the gas to make it possible to isolate. This is the helium of every high-voiced balloon prank, as well as of every MRI scanner and high temperature superconductor. About 1/4 of helium use is in cryogenic applications. Helium is ideal for such purposes, as it has the lowest boiling point of any known element.

What is not commonly appreciated is that, once these particular gas reserves are depleted, we will know of nowhere from which to get helium. Whatever helium is released into the atmosphere gradually rises through it, eventually drifting into interplanetary space. Despite all the helium being released by human beings, atmospheric concentrations have remained constant at around 5.2 parts per million.

We can produce minute quantities of helium through hydrogen fusion, of the kind that will eventually take place in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, but it will not be even close to the quantity that will be required to cool the superconducting magnets that will keep the plasma inside that device contained.

It would be particularly ironic if a long-hoped-for source of renewable energy (nuclear fusion) proved impractical not because of issues associated with energy levels of plasma containment, but because we had squandered the planet’s accessible supplies of coolant.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Litty July 22, 2008 at 9:51 am

And so the environmentalist War on Fun continues!

No more balloons!

Neal July 23, 2008 at 2:45 pm

Selling off the National Helium Reserve sure looks like a stupid idea now, doesn’t it?

. July 23, 2008 at 2:52 pm

The National Helium Reserve, also known as the Federal Helium Reserve, is a strategic reserve of the United States holding over a billion cubic feet of helium gas. The helium is stored at the Cliffside Storage Facility about 12 miles (19 km) northwest of Amarillo, Texas in a natural geologic gas storage formation. The reserve was established in 1925 as a strategic supply of gas for airships, and in the 1950s became an important source of coolant during the Space Race and Cold War.

After the “Helium Acts Amendments of 1960” (Public Law 86–777), the U.S. Bureau of Mines arranged for five private plants to recover helium from natural gas. For this helium conservation program, the Bureau built a 425-mile (684 km) pipeline from Bushton, Kansas to connect those plants with the government’s partially depleted Cliffside gas field. This helium-nitrogen mixture was injected and stored in the Cliffside gas field until needed, when it then was further purified.

By 1995, a billion cubic metres of the gas had been collected and the reserve was US$1.4 billion in debt, prompting the Congress of the United States in 1996 to phase out the reserve. The resulting “Helium Privatization Act of 1996” (Public Law 104–273) directed the United States Department of the Interior to start liquidating the reserve by 2005.

. November 23, 2009 at 10:48 pm

Program To Detect Smuggled Nuclear Bombs Stalls

“The NY Times reports that a program to detect plutonium or uranium in shipping containers has stalled because the United States has run out of helium 3, a crucial raw material needed to build the 1,300 to 1,400 machines to be deployed in ports around the world to thwart terrorists who might try to deliver a nuclear bomb to a big city by stashing it in one of the millions of containers that enter the United States every year. Helium 3 is an unusual form of the element that is formed when tritium, an ingredient of hydrogen bombs, decays — but the government mostly stopped making tritium in 1989 after accumulating a substantial stockpile of Helium 3 as a byproduct of maintaining nuclear weapons. ‘I have not heard any explanation of why this was not entirely foreseeable,’ says Representative Brad Miller, chairman of a House subcommittee that is investigating the problem. Helium 3 is not hazardous or even chemically reactive, and it is not the only material that can be used for neutron detection. The Homeland Security Department has older equipment that can look for radioactivity, but it does not differentiate well between bomb fuel and innocuous materials that naturally emit radiation like cat litter, ceramic tiles and bananas — and sounds false alarms more often. In a letter to President Obama, Miller called the shortage ‘a national crisis’ and said the price had jumped to $2,000 a liter from $100 in the last few years. With continuing concern that Al Qaida or other terrorists will try to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the United States, Congress has mandated that, by 2012, all containers bound for the US be inspected overseas.”

. February 13, 2010 at 12:59 pm
. July 6, 2010 at 9:36 am

Price Shocks May Be Coming For Helium Supply

Ars has an update on the potential helium shortage we discussed a couple of years back. A Nobel laureate, Robert Richardson, argues for ending market distortions that are resulting in an artificially low price for helium, which is accelerating the projected exhaustion of the supply. “Richardson’s solution is to rework the management of the Bush Dome [so named for reasons that have nothing to do with the politician] stockpile once again, this time with the aim of ensuring that helium’s price rises to reflect its scarcity. In practical terms, he said that it would be better to deal with a 20-fold increase in price now than to deal with it increasing by a factor of thousands in a few decades when supply issues start to become critical. But he also made an emotional appeal, stating, ‘One generation doesn’t have the right to determine the availability forever.'”

. July 6, 2010 at 9:57 am

“Richardson started by describing helium’s more interesting properties, which are key to its commercial use. These include its chemistry—his slide led with the text, “helium has no chemistry; it is a mere placeholder between hydrogen and lithium on the periodic table.” Being completely inert may seem rather dull, but for industries that work with highly reactive materials, this absence of chemistry can be essential.

Helium also has the highest thermal conductivity of any gas and is transparent to neutrons, which means it plays a key role in the design of next-generation nuclear reactor technology. It also has the lowest boiling point of any gas, which makes it useful for a variety of cooling applications, including keeping the hardware cold enough to superconduct at the Large Hadron Collider.

“It’s my favorite element,” Richardson said in explaining why he cared so much. “I’ve made a career studying it.”

The light weight of a helium atom, which makes it perfect for party balloons and blimps, is also the key to its scarcity. The Earth simply doesn’t exert enough gravitational force to keep it on the planet. Once in the atmosphere, helium will migrate to the stratosphere and be lost to space. All the primordial helium in the Earth’s vicinity when it formed is long since gone, and only flukes of geology have given us the opportunity to study it on Earth.”

. July 21, 2010 at 9:59 am

Helium was not discovered on earth until 1895, though astronomers had detected it in the sun a few decades before. However, since the helium was in the sun, scientists knew nothing about it and knew nothing of its properties. (Some thought it existed only in stars, in fact.) They certainly didn’t know helium had noble-gas qualities until 1895.

. August 20, 2010 at 2:26 pm

We Are Running Out Of Helium and It’s Worse Than You Think

Tyler Cowen wonders if there will be a helium crisis. Nobel Prize Winner Robert Richardson says Yes, because in 1996 Congress passed an act requiring that this strategic reserve, which represents half the Earth’s helium stocks, be sold off by 2015. As a result, helium is far too cheap and is not treated as a precious resource. The problem has been around for years. Most helium is NOT used for balloons but rather in industry, and in the US most helium comes from a few natural gas fields in the mountain states.Only 15 commercial plants worldwide have the ability to separate helium from other gases and to purify it.

. September 24, 2012 at 9:19 am

Scientists Speak Out Against Wasting Helium In Balloons

“BBC reports that Tom Welton, a professor of sustainable chemistry at Imperial College, London, believes that a global shortage of helium means it should be used more carefully, — and since helium cools the large magnets inside MRI scanners it is wrong to use it for balloons used at children’s parties. ‘We’re not going to run out of helium tomorrow — but on the 30 to 50 year timescale we will have serious problems of having to shut things down if we don’t do something in the meantime,’ says Welton. ‘When you see that we’re literally just letting it float into the air, and then out into space inside those helium balloons, it’s just hugely frustrating. It is absolutely the wrong use of helium.’ Two years ago, the shortage of helium prompted American Nobel Prize winner Robert Richardson to speak out about the huge amounts of helium wasted every day because the gas is kept artificially cheap by the U.S. government and to call for a dramatic increase in helium’s price. But John Lee, chairman of the UK’s Balloon Association, insists that the helium its members put into balloons is not depriving the medical profession of the gas. ‘The helium we use is not pure,’ says Lee. ‘It’s recycled from the gas which is used in the medical industry, and mixed with air. We call it balloon gas rather than helium for that reason.'”

. June 17, 2015 at 2:58 pm

The Earth is running out of helium

“By the end of the decade,” USGS writes in its 2015 report on helium, “international helium extraction facilities are likely to become the main source of supply for world helium users. Expansions to facilities have been completed as planned in Algeria and Qatar.” China also plans on mining helium-3, which is currently mostly manufactured, off the moon.

. June 27, 2016 at 7:16 pm

Huge helium deposit found in Africa

New prospecting technique could bring an end to worldwide shortage

. June 27, 2016 at 7:19 pm

“Gas seeping out of the new Tanzanian reserve contains up to 10.6 per cent helium, and the reserve is estimated to hold about 54 billion cubic feet (1.5 billion cubic metres) of helium gas in total.

“This is enough to fill over 1.2 million medical MRI scanners,” said Chris Ballentine, a University of Oxford researcher who co-authored the study, in a news release.

For comparison, entire global reserves are thought to be about 35.2 billion cubic metres, and the world uses about 227 million cubic metres per year.”

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