We Are Running Out Of Helium and It's Worse Than You Think
August 20, 2010 5:33 AM   Subscribe

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. [Previously, see also LHC Accident]
posted by Blake (45 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Wow, that Ayn Rand quote in the comments shows what am idiot she is, doesn't it?
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 5:53 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Fusion power generates helium. I'm just sayin'.
posted by DU at 6:05 AM on August 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Nobel Prize Winner Robert Richardson, in a comically high-pitched voice, says Yes.
posted by bondcliff at 6:07 AM on August 20, 2010 [11 favorites]


So now would be the right time to buy helium and stock it underground for a decade or two, right?
posted by stereo at 6:08 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Dee Xtrovert: "Wow, that Ayn Rand quote in the comments shows what am idiot she is, doesn't it?"

I picture a ten-year-old Ayn (rhymes with "mine") skipping in a circle, singing, "Free market! Free market!"
posted by notsnot at 6:11 AM on August 20, 2010


Fusion power generates helium. I'm just sayin'.

And its still only 50 years away!

From looking at some of the figures for reserves, it seems like this will mean the US running through its reserves faster than other sources are used up, meaning increased reliance on imports.

Does anyone have any idea how complete the known reserves are in terms of how well global potential has been mapped?
posted by biffa at 6:14 AM on August 20, 2010


At least most cryo work is done with closed cycle systems where the helium isn't actually used up. It does trickle away very slowly over the years though. I used a 20 year old cryostat once, and the pressure of the reservoir was still ok.

However, I worry about stuff like dilution fridges where you have to use isotopes of helium. What are the stocks of that like, compared to common or garden helium?
posted by Homemade Interossiter at 6:24 AM on August 20, 2010


Fusion power generates helium. I'm just sayin'.

In 2008, total worldwide energy consumption was 474 exajoules. Let's say by the time we develop workable fusion it's up to 1 zettajoule (i.e., 1000 exajoules). The energy density of DT fusion is 576 TJ/kg. So we'd need to consume about 1.7 million kg of hydrogen to power the entire world, which would produce a roughly equal amount of helium.

World consumption of helium is about 1.7 billion standard cubic meters per year, which is about 303 million kg, or 178 times more than fusion would produce.

So while fusion would produce a nontrivial amount of helium, it wouldn't even come close to satisfying world demand.
posted by jedicus at 6:26 AM on August 20, 2010 [14 favorites]


Hmm.
Why is there so little Hydrogen?
Hydrogen & Helium are the most abundant elements in the Universe, yet they are very rare in the Earth's atmosphere. Why?

* H & He are small and light, and so moves very fast at a given atmospheric temperature.
* The mean speeds are greater than the escape velocity from the Earth.

As a consequence, most of the H and He escaped from the atmosphere a long time ago.

The Earth is too small to retain atmospheric H & He.
But big planets have plenty o' helium and hydrogen. For example, Jupiter:
The two main constituents of the Jovian atmosphere are molecular hydrogen (H2) and helium.
Just how big does a planet have to be to retain its helium?
posted by pracowity at 6:30 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Jedicus - you're neglecting the buoyancy of helium - 1.7 billion m^3 would actually weigh MINUS 303 million kg ...

;-D
posted by kcds at 6:31 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Does anyone have any idea how complete the known reserves are in terms of how well global potential has been mapped?

It mostly depends on natural gas sources, which have not been fully mapped out. Unfortunately, most natural gas isn't as helium-rich as US sources. Some helium can be squeezed out of the air, but only enough to satisfy about 1% of current global demand, and it would be extremely expensive to do so. Right now it's not economical to bother extracting the helium from a lot of natural gas wells because helium prices are artificially low due to the US reserve being sold off.
posted by jedicus at 6:43 AM on August 20, 2010


Jedicus - you're neglecting the buoyancy of helium - 1.7 billion m^3 would actually weigh MINUS 303 million kg ...

Well, he said kg which is a measure of mass, not weight. </pedant
posted by atrazine at 6:43 AM on August 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Fucking helium, how does it work?

I will now walk away, hanging my head in shame
posted by Antidisestablishmentarianist at 6:44 AM on August 20, 2010


It's already here, if my lab bills for the past five years are anything to go by. We've had helium supply stoppages for a few months at a time and a few doublings in prices in gas. As a result, we, a chromatography lab, are switching to hydrogen generated from water. The capital costs are higher, but it looks like the payout is only a couple of years now; buying a $15k generator vs buying helium for that time.

We're in the no-brainer conservation category in that while gas chromatography uses a moderate amount of helium, it's easy to switch to an alternative in almost all cases. The people who do NMR/MRI and other applications which need big supercool magnets, CERN, for example, are going to be in much tighter fixes.
posted by bonehead at 6:52 AM on August 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Metafilter: big supercool magnets

how do they work?
posted by b1tr0t at 7:09 AM on August 20, 2010


Just how big does a planet have to be to retain its helium?

It's not just about size, because the speed of gas molecules/atoms depends on their temperature. To retain a gas, the planet has to be sufficiently large to have a high escape velocity and sufficiently cold that the gas molecules have a low probability of reaching escape velocity.
posted by Electric Dragon at 7:11 AM on August 20, 2010


I was talking to a friend, who works at Fermilab. A big problem has been the commissioning of the LHC, which uses staggering amounts of LHe in the magnets. Fermilab uses a bunch as well in the Tevatron -- indeed, back in the 1970s, Fermilab built its own He condenser at, and the time, doubled the world's output of LHe.

The problem: Helium has two tricks. As a gas, it's very inert. As a liquid, it is very, very, very cold -- boiling point of helium at 1 atm is 4.2K. So, at certain things, it is irreplaceable. One of the things that doesn't work without it is the current designs of superconducting magnets.

So, no LHe means no Tevatron, no LHC - and no high resolution MRI imaging, which all use superconducting magnets.
posted by eriko at 7:13 AM on August 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Well, we'll just have to send a mission to scoop it out of the Sun, like that Ray Bradbury story. I sense a new Michael Bay movie …
posted by gubo at 7:17 AM on August 20, 2010


I propose the US solve its budget issues by using its monopoly pricing power on helium to balance our trade deficits and make ourselves the Saudi Arabia of helium.
posted by humanfont at 7:20 AM on August 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


An expert on helium has said: Nothing to worry about. There's no helium crisis worth seriously discussing.

That joke doesn't work in print. It's supposed to be "an expert on helium", so his voice sounds really high-pitched and funny while he talks. I had to represent that with small text, because Metafilter won't let me include sound files in my comments. Had I been able to include a sound file of a helium-voice, this comment would have been much better.

Now that I've thought about it some more, a helium shortage isn't really that funny. Sorry.
posted by twoleftfeet at 7:24 AM on August 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Maybe I should buy some depleted natural gas wells, pump them full of He, seal them, and then re-drill 30 years from now. I guess you'd have to be pretty confident in the integrity of your reservoirs.
posted by atrazine at 7:31 AM on August 20, 2010


atrazine, no! If you pump too much helium underground, the whole planet could go floating off into space!
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:32 AM on August 20, 2010 [24 favorites]


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.

Did they have nothing else to fuck up that day? I don't get it.
posted by Splunge at 7:44 AM on August 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


This will lead to miseryyyyyyyyyy!
posted by Oddly at 7:47 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I own mineral rights down and up
4 acre times 8.5 speed of light projected in space
I own this projected point rotating
mass of the sun = 1.98892 × 1030 kilograms x a tiny, tiny bit
Posted.
posted by Mblue at 7:54 AM on August 20, 2010


Maybe I should buy some depleted natural gas wells, pump them full of He, seal them, and then re-drill 30 years from now. I guess you'd have to be pretty confident in the integrity of your reservoirs.

You know noble gasses are notorious for their tendency to diffuse through almost everything, right?

Here's another fun fact: A helium atom is essentialy an alpha particle with a couple of electrons thrown in. Most of the helium on earth originated as alpha particles from the radioactive decay of natural heavy nuclei, and diffused through the rock to gather at natural cavities.
posted by Dr Dracator at 8:12 AM on August 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


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.

Did they have nothing else to fuck up that day? I don't get it.
The funny this was that several years before this, PJ O'Rourke, in Parliament of Whores, started off a chapter on "government waste" by pointing to the costs of the strategic helium reserve which cost some number of millions of dollars a year to maintain. He then went on to argue that while everyone points to things like this in the government, these small programs are not really the ones that are costing the government a lot of money and talking about the actual large sources of waste like agricultural subsidies and the like.

So what, of course, does the "Republican Revolution" focus on when passing their agenda to reduce government waste? The Strategic Helium Reserve.
posted by deanc at 8:12 AM on August 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Splunge wrote: "Did they have nothing else to fuck up that day? I don't get it."

Free markets, man. Apparently you can't have a free market in Helium if the US government has enormous stocks of the stuff. I don't see why they couldn't have just kept storing it, but that's the free marketeers for you.
posted by wierdo at 8:13 AM on August 20, 2010


Apparently you can't have a free market in Helium if the US government has enormous stocks of the stuff.

Of course, having the US government sell off these vast stocks over the course of two decades at a rate that far exceeds the world's ability to produce it is perfectly compatible with a free market, and has no distortionary effects whatsoever.
posted by [citation needed] at 8:43 AM on August 20, 2010


US running through its reserves faster than other sources are used up, meaning increased reliance on imports.
What imports? AFAIK, the US is about the only producer of helium. That's, BTW, why Nazi Germany, being denied access to US helium, had to fill the Hindenburg with hydrogen.
posted by Skeptic at 8:52 AM on August 20, 2010


behold the wind whales, those mighty giants of the sky...
posted by kliuless at 8:56 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


You know noble gasses are notorious for their tendency to diffuse through almost everything, right?

Obviously, but since helium accumulates in some natural gas reservoirs naturally they can be used for storage as well. The US strategic reserve is actually stored in underground salt domes without any significant diffusion problems.
posted by atrazine at 9:01 AM on August 20, 2010


If this stuff gets really scarce, you're gonna have commercial hip-hop artists completely flooding their houses and studios with the stuff. It's going to be interesting hearing them talking about their bitches and hos with Donald Duck voices.
posted by crapmatic at 9:24 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


AFAIK, the US is about the only producer of helium.

Nope: "In 2008, approximately 169 million standard cubic meters (SCM) of helium were extracted from natural gas or withdrawn from helium reserves with approximately 78% from the United States, 10% from Algeria, and most of the remainder from Russia, Poland and Qatar." [emphasis added; we won't be at 78% market share for long once the reserves are depleted]

What you say used to be more or less true, though: "For many years the United States produced over 90% of commercially usable helium in the world, while extraction plants in Canada, Poland, Russia, and other nations produced the remainder. In the mid-1990s, a new plant in Arzew, Algeria producing 17 million cubic meters (600 million cubic feet) began operation, with enough production to cover all of Europe's demand.

Meanwhile, by 2000, the consumption of helium within the U.S. had risen to above 15 million kg per year. In 2004–2006, two additional plants, one in Ras Laffen, Qatar and the other in Skikda, Algeria were built, but as of early 2007, Ras Laffen is functioning at 50%, and Skikda has yet to start up. Algeria quickly became the second leading producer of helium."
posted by jedicus at 9:30 AM on August 20, 2010


By all means, yes, let's cede more of our natural resources to private interests!
posted by Eideteker at 9:47 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Selling off the national reserve isn't shortsightedness: it's poking your own damn eyes out with a stick!
posted by five fresh fish at 10:06 AM on August 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


One solution to US shortages is to invade the sun.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:21 AM on August 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


One solution to US shortages is to invade the sun.

Actually, lunar regolith is about 28ppm helium (compare to 5.24ppm in the Earth's atmosphere and 8ppb in the crust), so it would make more sense to invade the Moon. On the other hand, given the US track record with invasions, we'd probably end up invading the Sun on trumped-up allegations that it was preparing to strike the Earth with a massive solar flare.
posted by jedicus at 10:30 AM on August 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm not hearing any easy solutions. Can't we just bomb something or someone until they give us more helium?
posted by TwelveTwo at 10:40 AM on August 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


The sun is a big nuclear weapon. I think we all know what has to be done, here.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:41 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


MOON!!!11!!ELEVENTY!! WITH MONSTER TRUCKS AND BULLDOZERS!!!

An alternate title: Charles Stross provides a sober and well-reasoned argument why neither fusion production nor lunar mining will provide enough HE3. But what a boring title.
posted by Lemurrhea at 10:59 AM on August 20, 2010


atrazine: Maybe I should buy some depleted natural gas wells, pump them full of He, seal them, and then re-drill 30 years from now.
That's more-or-less what the National Helium Reserve is, in fact.
posted by Western Infidels at 1:21 PM on August 20, 2010


Fusion power generates helium. I'm just sayin'.

Fission generates helium also. Where do you think our reserves came from?
posted by Araucaria at 2:09 PM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


That's more-or-less what the National Helium Reserve is, in fact.

Yeah, I wasn't totally kidding either. Buying a dead gas well is pretty cheap, the trick is to find one that's on top of a small isolated reservoir so that you can pressure up the formation with maybe 10m USD of helium. Cement the well and sell it to a master limited partnership or a similar structure created for the purpose, ideally one that can pass on the losses up to the date that you open the well back up directly to the limited partners for tax purposes.

I dunno what the projected rise of the helium price over the next 20 years is though.
posted by atrazine at 2:58 PM on August 20, 2010


So why are you selling it off?
posted by A189Nut at 3:41 PM on August 20, 2010


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