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Endangered Helium:Bursting the Myth
January 26, 2014 1:04 AM   Subscribe

Is the worlds supply of helium running out? [PDF] Interesting article about the supply and demand of Helium and how in the shortage to come, we can continue to meet the demands.
posted by jebs86 (33 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Mr. President, the world's squeaky voice supply is under threat!
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:15 AM on January 26 [6 favorites]


I think people worry about helium because of the issue over the US strategic reserve, rather than because it's a big problem. If you want to lose sleep over scarcity I'd worry about indium or gallium, maybe tantalum.
posted by Segundus at 1:47 AM on January 26 [3 favorites]


A shortage of tantalum? That seems perfectly appropriate, especially if there's only slightly less than we need.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:55 AM on January 26 [28 favorites]


This is an interesting article. I work with cryogenics in a research setting, and my impression is that people in the field have gotten serious about recycling helium in the last couple of years. For example, almost all new refrigerators for ultra-low temperatures are cryogen free these days. There is still helium on the inside, but it stays in a closed loop. It's cheaper, and everyone is happy to avoid the cumbersome logistics of a liquid that strongly prefers to be a gas.

There are still many old ("wet") fridges around, but the labs that have them are successively getting fitted with local liquefiers. The market price of helium is so high, and the disruptions in availability so frequent, that the investment makes economic sense. The technology has also advanced to a state where it's quite safe and practical.
posted by Herr Zebrurka at 2:07 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]


Is there too little solar wind to harvest helium from it?
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 2:24 AM on January 26


I hear hydrogen fusion is still only ten years away.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:20 AM on January 26 [7 favorites]


Maybe this will be the year that those busybodies down at the Consumer Product Safety Comission finally let me bring my hydrogen party balloons to market.
posted by sy at 4:57 AM on January 26 [8 favorites]


Maybe this will be the year that those busybodies down at the Consumer Product Safety Comission finally let me bring my hydrogen party balloons to market.

I hope you get your wish. I just had a vision of gleeful, mylar versions of Elmo and Dora meeting spectacular ends while my daughter shrieks and I reassure her with "Oh, the humanity!"
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:53 AM on January 26 [4 favorites]


Hillaire Belloc had something to say about this. (Works better if you read it in a upper-crusty London accent.)
posted by sneebler at 8:06 AM on January 26


Back when I still worked for a florist, we had times we had real difficulty getting helium for balloons.

It's a thing, at least at that level.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:32 AM on January 26


"No, the world's supply of helium is not running out" is the answer to this post's clickbait description.

Here's a graph of BLM's price of Helium; almost double from 1998 to 2013. This Planet Money piece about helium prices is fun and short, but now out of date.

The price of helium is one reason zeppelin company Airship Ventures didn't make it. Too bad, it was a fun airship.
posted by Nelson at 9:06 AM on January 26


The world's supply is not running out? Your links don't say that. The posted article says "The world will not run short of helium for many decades to come", which is another way of saying "the world will run short of helium in several decades."

You hear this about a lot of resources. There seems to be a universal, selfish, short term thinking. "Oh we have enough for at least 100 years." Who cares about our grandchildren or their children? They are completely off our radar. As long as we have enough and our kids have enough, everything is fine.

No one even knew helium existed in 1860, and we'll run short in several decades. Enjoy it while it lasts.
posted by eye of newt at 9:26 AM on January 26 [7 favorites]


Do they mix hydrogen with helium for blimps? Maybe in separate bladders inside. Because helium is the most inert element possible, it would drown out any possible flammability of hydrogen if the hydrogen is kept at a low level. Also increased buoyancy.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 9:56 AM on January 26


I use helium in a research context as well, but as a breathing gas for diving. He as a breathing gas represents one of the smaller usage sectors and as such there's not a lot of purchasing power. Consequently, I've seen retail prices on (ultra/high purity) He go from .60 / cubic foot up to 2.00 or more in some places. Overseas it can be just ridiculous.
posted by deadbilly at 11:01 AM on January 26


eye of newt: "The world's supply is not running out? Your links don't say that. The posted article says "The world will not run short of helium for many decades to come", which is another way of saying "the world will run short of helium in several decades."

I feel like you read a different article than me? No, helium is not running out. This isn't like fossil fuels. Helium is 26% of all the mass in the universe. It's just getting more and more expensive, as it should. The only reason it was ever available for party balloon duty was because of the strategic helium reserve, i.e., because it was subsidized by the U.S. taxpayers. The rising cost will reserve it for the industries that really need it, and encourage more efficient use of it.
posted by danny the boy at 11:16 AM on January 26


Did I read a different article? I quoted the article.
posted by eye of newt at 11:25 AM on January 26


Ok but you also declined to quote:
Contrary to recent reports, we are not about to run out of helium any time soon, say Richard Clarke, William Nuttall, and Bartek Glowacki.
and
Since 2000 there have been three helium crises when the supply chain has become bottlenecked, and we are in one right now. But let us be clear. These are short-term shortages caused by upstream market disturbances, not long-term problems.
posted by danny the boy at 11:35 AM on January 26


My point was that they (and, in fact, most people) think that having a good helium supply for decades means that we aren't running out.
posted by eye of newt at 11:37 AM on January 26


I read all the comments to this post in a high squeeky voice.

Actually, if they'd quit with the damn Mylar balloons for any and all occasions, I wouldn't be sad at all. Thoroughly sick of seeing them hanging on every sage and cottonwood in the country. Not to mention watching a vehicle full of birthday balloons weaving down the road with the driver's view obscured by kids batting them around. Save it for what serious business it's needed for.

Interesting link from the NM BLM, of all places.

Helium's used in heart surgery. Who knew?
Other than a KIA buncha MeFites, I'm sure
posted by BlueHorse at 11:52 AM on January 26


Well, using the US geological survey figure of ~8M t in the crust, and current 30,000 t yearly consumption, assuming we can actually get to only about half of what's in the crust, that's like 130+ years supply.

Honestly, if we haven't figured out fusion by then we'll have way bigger problems than a helium shortage.
posted by danny the boy at 12:33 PM on January 26


(And sorry, I don't mean to imply we're actually going to use helium generated by fusion, but that once we crack that nut it becomes a lot more economical to just process helium that we have in the atmosphere, of which there's a lot more of than trapped in the ground)
posted by danny the boy at 12:41 PM on January 26


It came as a surprise to me that party balloons account for as much as 8% of the global helium use. I used to think it was totally marginal.

For comparison, I need about 100 liters of liquid helium to cool down a dilution refrigerator. That corresponds to 70 000 liters of gas or about 5000 balloons. To keep the fridge cold it needs to be refilled with roughly the same amount every week. That's one fridge out of several in the lab, which has a total yearly consumption of about 5 Goodyear blimps. We got a liquefier about five years ago, but until then it all went straight up in the atmosphere. There are hundreds if not thousands of labs like this in the world, and yet cryogenic research and party balloons consume about the same amount of helium according to the report.

I still don't think people should feel too bad about using some helium for balloons or squeaky voices. The fun-per-liter ratio is high, and the big waste lies in the gas fields anyways, where tons of helium go to waste because there isn't enough money to be made from it.

Tangentially related, the same isn't true for sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), which produces an even greater effect when you inhale it. I was planning to bring a bottle to a party until I did the math on its greenhouse properties: The environmental impact of a single breath of SF6 is the same as from flying between Los Angeles and New York!
posted by Herr Zebrurka at 12:59 PM on January 26 [5 favorites]


danny the boy: I didn't think there was any He in the atmosphere, with it being light enough that it was able to escape the earths gravity?
posted by Canageek at 1:00 PM on January 26


No one even knew helium existed in 1860, and we'll run short in several decades.

I'd think we'll have helium as long as we're mining natural gas.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:11 PM on January 26


I'd think we'll have helium as long as we're mining natural gas.

I don't know why you would think that. Most natural gas deposits either don't contain helium, since the sealing mechanisms have long since been breached and the helium has escaped, or it been diluted to a point where it's uneconomic to recover.
posted by Mezentian at 3:07 PM on January 26


Is the world's supply of rhetorical questions running out?

Stay tuned - news at 11.
posted by Twang at 3:12 PM on January 26 [3 favorites]


What this nine-year-old boy discovered about the world's supply of rhetorical questions WILL SHOCK YOU!
posted by Mezentian at 3:21 PM on January 26 [3 favorites]


One of my physics professors was complaining about the lack of helium they need to cool some of the most powerful magnets in their lab. He told us that hospitals get first dibs when it becomes available, which makes sense. They too are looking into a new system that recycles the coolant.
posted by runcibleshaw at 3:28 PM on January 26


Metafilter: It's just getting more and more expensive, as it should.
posted by sneebler at 5:06 PM on January 26


> Helium is 26% of all the mass in the universe.

This is true, but the problem is that helium tends not to stick around. We're hardly getting a full shovel of helium out of every four we dig up.
posted by lucidium at 6:00 PM on January 26


It's okay dudes! We can totally mine it from the moon someday. (Warning: that link contains more than your daily recommended amount of Lyndon LaRouche).
posted by Mezentian at 6:16 PM on January 26


Mezentian: That's helium-3, an isotope with only one neutron instead of the two that are in regular helium-4. If an application comes up where it's needed in quantity, it might actually make sense to mine it from the moon. Helium-3 is also essential in cryogenic equipment, but it's always used in small quantities and closed systems due to its insanely high price. A liter of He-3 gas at atmospheric conditions costs several thousand dollars these days. That's because it doesn't come from natural gas supplies but only gets created in man-made nuclear processes, like decaying hydrogen bombs. They found a use for it in airport scanners a few years ago which drove the price up by a factor 20, causing big problems for low-temperature physicists. Here is an article about it.
posted by Herr Zebrurka at 8:23 PM on January 26


Curses! Damned chemistry.

It looks like this article from The Conversation takes a more worried view: Helium rationing, a looming crisis – and a sinking feeling.
posted by Mezentian at 10:58 PM on January 26


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