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Government Science

Why the World Is Running Out of Helium 475

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the i-blame-politics dept.
jamie writes "The US National Helium Reserve stores a billion cubic meters of helium, half the world supply, in an old natural gasfield. The array of pipes and mines runs 200 miles from Texas to Kansas. In the name of deficit reduction, we're selling it all off for cheap. Physics professor and Nobel laureate Robert Richardson says: 'In 1996, the US Congress decided to sell off the strategic reserve and the consequence was that the market was swelled with cheap helium because its price was not determined by the market. The motivation was to sell it all by 2015. The basic problem is that helium is too cheap. The Earth is 4.7 billion years old and it has taken that long to accumulate our helium reserves, which we will dissipate in about 100 years. One generation does not have the right to determine availability forever.' Another view is The Impact of Selling the Federal Helium Reserve, the government study from 10 years ago that suggested the government's price would end up being over market value by 25% — but cautioned that this was based on the assumption that demand would grow slowly, and urged periodic reviews of the state of the industry."
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Why the World Is Running Out of Helium

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  • by elrous0 (869638) * on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:29AM (#33341904)
    Jesus, Richard, does she really need hundreds of fucking balloons at *every* party? Isn't it enough we got her ponies *and* two clowns, for crying out loud?!?!?
    • by Mr. DOS (1276020) on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:51AM (#33342390)

      The balloons are to make up for the clowns.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Great post. There is some great basic information about the Element at Helium Facts [thefreeresource.com] that might be helpful. Where as I think balloons are part of the issue that article shows many other used for helium that might be contributing to the idea that we are running out of the gas. Some include as an inert gas shield for arc welding, a protective gas in growing silicon and germanium crystals and producing titanium and zirconium, as a cooling medium for nuclear reactors, and as a gas for supersonic wind tunnels.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by tuxgeek (872962)
        Good link
        Once helium does run out we can still use hydrogen to fill those party balloons for the kids
        And after the kids crap out and go to bed, the adults can play "Balloon meets Cigarette" for some drinking fun
        • by JockTroll (996521) on Monday August 23, 2010 @02:03PM (#33345518)

          Ah, "Balloon meets cigarette". When I was a kid there was this piece of shit on two legs, he loved to pop up on kids at funfairs and blow up their balloons with his cig. He'd go "oops, sorry" and walk away while the kids cried.
          We filled some balloons with a mixture of hydrogen and air, and tied them to an empty pushchair about 30 meters from the fair near the parking lot. Of course, he couldn't resist, thinking the kid would be around to see his precious balloons pop. He took a nice long drag on his cig, touched the balloon with the lit end and...

          To this day, sometimes I still hear the screams.

          Ah, sweet childhood memories. :)

  • by Mikkeles (698461)

    Because it's a finite resource! (Sheesh!)

    • Re:Why? (Score:5, Funny)

      by WrongSizeGlass (838941) on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:34AM (#33342002)
      I'd be able to take Mr. Richardson's claims more seriously if his voice wasn't so artificially high ...
    • Re:Why? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by JamesP (688957) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:06AM (#33342680)

      Funny how helium is one of the most abundant elements in the whole UNIVERSE and we have a shortage!!!

      of course, the problem is gravity here is not strong enough for it

      • Re:Why? (Score:4, Informative)

        by TheRaven64 (641858) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:20AM (#33342900) Journal

        The other half of the problem is that it is relatively unreactive. Hydrogen is abundant on Earth only because it bonds with oxygen. The resulting water is heavy enough to hang around. If hydrogen did not form compounds like this then it would be lost from the atmosphere too.

        Of course, 100 years is a long time. Helium is formed as a product of hydrogen fusion - that was how most of it formed, in stars, originally. Even without fusion power, we can manufacture helium in tabletop fusors. Even run below break-even energy, they still produce helium as a byproduct, so we're running out but this can be balanced at the cost of energy.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by drerwk (695572)
          Most, if not all, of the Helium on Earth is from alpha decay.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by scorp1us (235526)

        Um, no, more gravity would only make it worse... because everything else (except for hydrogen) would also be heavier too. Meaning that the helium would be expelled even faster. (its exponentially dense) You'd need a microgravity environment with some turbidity to keep it well-mixed (around)

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by ultranova (717540)

        Funny how helium is one of the most abundant elements in the whole UNIVERSE and we have a shortage!!!

        Helium is the second most abundant element at 25%. Hydrogen is the most abundant at 75%. The rest amount to a rounding error at this time.

        Mind you, it's interesting to note that Oxygen and Carbon are the next two most abundant elements in our galaxy, and both are vital for life. Which way the causation runs, I wonder - does the known life in our galaxy use these elements because they are common, or does our

  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn@nOsPam.gmail.com> on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:31AM (#33341952) Journal
    I like how we can talk about peak helium but the second you try to discuss peak oil or peak coal you're a treehugger, an alarmist or trying to destroy the economy. I guess we have to wait until we're certain we're only a century away from using the last of a resource that took the Earth 4.7 billion years to accumulate before it's okay to start to talk about appropriate measures ...
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Jiro (131519)

      People generally don't have political and ideological motives to exaggerate peak helium like they do peak for coal and oil.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by HangingChad (677530)

      we can talk about peak helium but the second you try to discuss peak oil or peak coal you're a treehugger

      Not really seeing how that's a troll, it's the truth. Maybe because helium doesn't have billions in Saudi oil money, funding from the Koch family and The Carlyle Group trying to influence social opinions about balloons.

  • by robot256 (1635039) on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:34AM (#33342004)
    Apparently, they forgot that without a large supply of helium operating their favorite cash cow, the manned space flight program, would become a lot harder. There are also many scientific applications that are virtually impossible without helium, with its boiling point at 4.1 Kelvin. Hydrogen, at 14 Kelvin, is not a perfect replacement, and has a tendency to explode. They really ought to be inflating the price, so we learn to conserve helium now while we still have plenty left.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by TheRaven64 (641858)
      When the helium on Earth runs out, space flight suddenly looks a lot more commercially interesting. Helium is abundant in the universe, it's only rare at the bottom of our gravity well. There are large deposits on the moon, there almost certainly are on asteroids as well, and it can be harvested from the solar wind. With sufficiently cheap energy, you can also make it from hydrogen in a fusor. If you want something to motivate commercial space flight, use up the helium reserves quickly and then watch pe
      • by robot256 (1635039) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:31PM (#33344036)
        True, but then the concern becomes whether commercial mining activity will ramp up before the local price or sheer scarcity of helium makes speculative exploration impractical. If the price stays artificially low, the commercial incentive won't be there until it's too late, and we'll be up a gravity well without a rocket, so to speak. Somebody on this planet really ought to have a stockpile of helium for when that time comes. That's the whole point of a strategic helium reserve--so that we have it when we really need it, not for f***ing party balloons.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      They really ought to be inflating the price,

      Yep, they should definitely take steps to make the price balloon now, before it's too late.

      What? Why are you looking at me that way?

  • by Drakkenmensch (1255800) on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:35AM (#33342010)
    Because no generation should be denied the fun of inhaling helium to speak with a goofy high-pitch voice.
  • Once we get fusion reactors perfected, won't there be an abundant supply of helium? We only need enough helium to hold out until then. If we run low, the law of supply and demand should make it prohibitively expensive to waste the stuff on parties and get-well balloons.
    • by Waffle Iron (339739) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:30PM (#33344022)

      Once we get fusion reactors perfected, won't there be an abundant supply of helium?

      A quick Google search says the current annual consumption of He is 30000 tons (3e10g).

      D-T fusion produces about 17MeV per molecule of He output, or 4.24e11 J/g of helium.

      World energy consumption is currently around 5e20 J per year. If all power were generated by fusion, that would be 1.17e9 g of helium produced, which is only about 4% of current helium usage.

  • by Nihn (1863500) on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:40AM (#33342140)
    I live in Amarillo Tx, what this article fails to mention is all the helium we still have here, We shut down refining after we had enough stored, we didn't stop because we ran out of helium to refine. Our plant is still here waiting to be used comes the time to gather more. It's good to know people can make up stories about resource and how little we have left to stir up some sort of reaction. Now if oil disappears, worry.....
    • by nine-times (778537) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:11AM (#33342744) Homepage

      Even if we're in no immediate danger of running out, we're still living on a planet with finite resources. It makes sense to concern ourselves with what happens when those resources run out.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Pharmboy (216950)

        Even if we're in no immediate danger of running out, we're still living on a planet with finite resources.

        But helium isn't burned or consumed or changed into something else, so we still have it when we are done using it. It's not like the helium is going to vanish into thin air.

        • by ultranova (717540) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:58AM (#33343464)

          But helium isn't burned or consumed or changed into something else, so we still have it when we are done using it. It's not like the helium is going to vanish into thin air.

          No, it's going to vanish to outer space [wikipedia.org]. Temperature of a gas is a measure of the average kinetic energy of a single molecule; since helium atoms don't form molecules and are very light, they tend to have very high velocities in a given temperature. So high, in fact, that they exceed Earth's escape velocity; while molecules at lower atmosphere will likely collide with other molecules before escaping, those in in the upper atmosphere will simply go up and never come down again.

          • by hankwang (413283) * on Monday August 23, 2010 @01:06PM (#33344618) Homepage

            So high, in fact, that they exceed Earth's escape velocity;

            No; the thermal velocity of a molecule is srqt(<v^2>) = sqrt(3kT/m), with k Boltzmann's constant and m the molecular mass. At room temperature (293 K), this velocity is 1.35 km/s, while the escape velocity is 11 km/s. (By the way, for nitrogen, the thermal velocity is 0.51 km/s). Statistical mechanics predicts that only one molecule in 10^29 has a velocity exceeding the escape velocity of the earth.

            However, it is true that helium will reach farther than nitrogen and oxygen; the gravitational potential energy is comparable to the thermal energy at an altitude of 62 km (compare 9 km for nitrogen).

            I'm not sure what does cause the helium loss; maybe the helium gets blown away by the solar wind?

            • by CraigParticle (523952) on Monday August 23, 2010 @03:30PM (#33346682) Homepage

              While the average thermal velocity is lower than the escape velocity, the high velocity tail of the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution is what's significant on long time scales.

              It's important to state that room temperature isn't the most important number here. As you pointed out, the equilibrium point is high up in the atmosphere, where the gas is very dilute and can heat to a thousand degrees or more (solar UV heating and some contribution from solar wind). When you plug that temperature into the M-B thermal distribution, the fraction of atoms exceeding the escape velocity of Earth is much larger! In absolute terms, it's still a small number but enough to leak the helium out of the atmosphere over many millions of years.

              Ultimately, it is the high thermal velocity that causes the loss of helium.

  • by Urban Garlic (447282) on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:46AM (#33342262)

    Pet peeve wrt the summary, which quotes Richardson as saying that the price was low because a lot of helium became available, which meant that the "price was not determined by the market."

    But this is what markets do, they use the power of pricing to set the balance between supply and demand. If you introduce a large additional supply of a resource with low marginal cost to a market, the market's price mechanism will reduce the price of that resource. The market will determine a low price.

    The observed behavior wrt the price of Helium is the opposite of "not determined by the market".

    There are enough flame wars around about the merits of markets as a means of determining prices, and IMHO they have their limits, but FFS, can we at least have educated professionals know what a market is and what it does? Markets are pitiless, soulless mechanisms for matching up buyers and sellers of resources, and disclosing price information, period full stop. They have no a priori relationship to fairness, justice, accessibility, or legality, and only a tangential relationship to efficiency.

    • by Goldsmith (561202) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:50AM (#33343362)

      I think you're confused. The price was set in the "Helium Privitization Act of 1996," that's simply a fact and has nothing to do with market forces.

      When the government makes a law which says "we will sell our helium for $1.50 per cubic meter until it is gone" and that supply is 1/3 the global total market for two decades, the "market" has not set the price.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Pahalial (580781)
      Not quite. He was commenting on the price the Fed was selling its helium at, which was set by legislation and has not changed. While it was approximately 25% higher than market price at the time of the act, it has since acted as a ceiling on the price of helium.
  • by frank_adrian314159 (469671) on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:49AM (#33342342) Homepage

    In 1996, the US Congress decided to sell off the strategic reserve and the consequence was that the market was swelled with cheap helium because its price was not determined by the market.

    Uh, what? If the helium was sold and not given away, bled into the atmosphere, or some other odd thing done to it, the price was determined by the market. You may question the wisdom of putting it all on the market at the same time and getting a lower price for it than if you doled it out bit-by-bit, but I think the market did fine in determining the price in a glutted market.

    This is the problem when you get experts in one field (in this case physics) talking about things in other fields, like economics - quite often, they are no better informed then any other layman. If the government buys and/or sells something on the open market, it's part of the market, umkayyy? And you don't need to be a Nobel Laureate to understand this. The fact that this was wrapped up in a nasty little bit of anti-government sentiment makes it clear that Richardson was more interested in scoring political points than enlightening the public.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Volante3192 (953645)

      Gold is currently going for $1225 US / oz according to NYMEX.

      If someone decided to dump pounds of gold for $600 US / oz, would that be considered 'market value'?

  • by xiando (770382) on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:57AM (#33342530) Homepage Journal
    "One generation does not have the right to determine availability for ever.", eh? Helium, eh? Let us all form a circle and talk about how we should all help save the helium for our grandchildren and ignore that we already used up more than half the oil, plutonium and other important energy sources. And copper. And we are killing off a whole range of biological diversity. But let us all ignore that and talk about the helium.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Marcika (1003625)

      "One generation does not have the right to determine availability for ever.", eh? Helium, eh? Let us all form a circle and talk about how we should all help save the helium for our grandchildren and ignore that we already used up more than half the oil, plutonium and other important energy sources. And copper. And we are killing off a whole range of biological diversity. But let us all ignore that and talk about the helium.

      The difference: compared to helium, even oil is a renewable resource. Oil can be made reasonably cheaply (maybe $200/bbl) from air, water and sunshine, as any rapeseed or olive farmer could demonstrate. Copper is not "used up", it's merely dug up in one place and buried somewhere else in form of cables. Helium is different: once the cheap stuff from rock fissures is gone, it can never be retrieved again. Then you can only create it by super-expensive fusion processes, which makes it 4, 5 or even 10 orders o

  • Short-term memories. (Score:3, Informative)

    by Mostly Harmless (48610) <mike_pete@yahoo. c o m> on Monday August 23, 2010 @10:58AM (#33342546) Homepage
    How [slashdot.org] often [slashdot.org] do we need to repeat the same story?
  • by EWAdams (953502) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:13AM (#33342782) Homepage

    Your basic blimp uses as much fuel in a WEEK of operations as a 747 uses taxiing from the gate to the runway. We need to get people out of these wasteful planes and into a more efficient (and comfortable) form of air transport.

    • by Arlet (29997) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:30AM (#33343072)

      Your basic blimp is also slow, can't carry much weight, and can't deal with storms very well.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      So, since when are Amish encouraged to post on /.?

      Your blimp might be fuel efficient, but going from Los Angeles to Sydney at the mind-numbing speed of 45 MPH doesn't appeal to everyone.

      I'm also guessing you want us to give up those wasteful automobiles, because your horse-drawn carriage uses less fuel, provides you with a cheap source of fertilizer, and is oh-so-comfortable?

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Palshife (60519)

      Good analogy! "Your basic blimp" vs. a 747 is clearly an apples-to-apples comparison!

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by MartinSchou (1360093)

      Your basic blimp uses as much fuel in a WEEK of operations as a 747 uses taxiing from the gate to the runway.

      Yes. And just how much stuff can you move with that particular amount of fuel?
      In what time frame?
      What would be the total cost of that journey?
      And what could you move with a 747 in that time period?

  • Macey's Parade (Score:3, Interesting)

    by coldmist (154493) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:28AM (#33343030) Homepage

    While watching the Macey's Parade last year, they mentioned that the parade balloons (big charlie brown, etc) makes it the single largest helium user in the US (maybe world?) next to the US Government.

    Interesting stuff.

  • by Goldsmith (561202) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:42AM (#33343242)

    This is not about balloon animals, and it's not your typical media scare story.

    I'm a condensed matter physicist. It's very common in my field to use helium to examine the properties of materials at very low temperatures. This is how things like superconductors and quantum computing are often worked on in their early stages. Using helium is important, and because universities don't like concentrated hydrogen (for safety reasons), pretty much required.

    The current supply of helium is uncertain. Many research institutes (like the university I work at) have rationed helium. That is, we're allowed to buy a certain amount, and can't get more than that. This is set by the suppliers, who get their helium from the US government. The result is that my experiments compete with the experiments in particle physics, the medical school and other groups for helium. Sometimes I get it, sometimes I can't. From a practical viewpoint, we're not running out of helium in 2015, we're running out now.

    There is helium available somewhere else, but there's no economic incentive for anyone to capture it and sell it. As long as stockpiles are sold off at fixed, below-market prices (TFA says helium should be 20 to 50 times more expensive), no one can economically afford to capture and purify the helium which is available. We're wasting the tail end of potential helium production (most in the stockpiles came from oil processing). Think of it this way: when oil runs out, helium runs out. We can replace oil much more cheaply than we can replace helium. Helium is too light an element to be captured by Earth's gravitational field this close to the sun, so that wasted helium is gone.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by TheSync (5291)

      Many research institutes (like the university I work at) have rationed helium...This is set by the suppliers, who get their helium from the US government...As long as stockpiles are sold off at fixed, below-market prices (TFA says helium should be 20 to 50 times more expensive), no one can economically afford to capture and purify the helium which is available

      I don't understand why the basic science of economics is so often ignored. If government fixes prices, you get shortages. Moreover, you reduce the

  • Helium's uses (Score:3, Informative)

    by DJRumpy (1345787) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:49AM (#33343342)

    Just a few tidbits I found since I assume many will follow the same track:

    REF: http://www.helium.com/items/19276-the-uses-of-helium [helium.com]

    Helium has many uses even though it is inert. There are three major uses for helium.It is used in low-temperature cooling systems and pressure, lighter-than-air objects and purge systems.

    Helium can be very useful in low-temperature cooling because at -270*, or liquid temperature, is able to cool anything because it is so cold. A good example of this as useful is in superconducting devices, because superconducting (electricity can pass from one place to another without wasting any energy) can occur only at very low temperatures.
    In pressure systems a gas is used to pressurize the system but the gas is not acceptable if it is able to react with any of the surroundings. Helium is an inert gas that is ideal for these situations. As well, in a purge system an inert gas is used to sweep all gas in a container without reacting with the contents, being inert it is ideal for these situations as well.
    Helium is ideal for blimps, balloons and other lighter-than-air crafts because it is neither flammable nor have the lifting effects of hydrogen, this makes it much safer. Although only used for advertising and other limited purposes, it is an ideal element to make these possible.....

    Some other common uses for helium include: :leak detection systems :welding :growing silicon and germanium crystals; protective shield :titanium and zirconium production; protective shield :nuclear reactors; cooling medium :diving and others working under pressure; artificial atmosphere with 20% oxygen :supersonic wind tunnels :cryogenic applications :liquid fuel rockets; pressurizing :effecting voice if breathed

    I was then curious as to how quickly we lose helium to space and ran across this:

    REF: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Why_do_gases_such_as_helium_escape_Earth's_atmosphere [answers.com]

    No planet can hold any gas. Everything escapes, the only question is how fast.

    Atmosphere is lost faster, when:
    gas is lighter
    temperature is higher,
    gravity is lower,
    planet has smaller size.

    Potential energy of helium atom near the surface is
    P = -mgRe = -/Na gRe

    Exponential factor in Boltzmann distribution is
    exp(-P/kT) = exp(/Na gRe / kT) = exp(/(RT) gRe)

    Assuming T= 300 K we have /RT gRe = 0.004/(8.3 300) 9.8 6,370,000 = 100

    So once per exp(-100) ~ 10^-43 attempts at escaping helium atom manages to do so. Probabilty 10^-34 is very small, but it sharply depends on temperature. Throw in 1000K and you have p ~ 10^-13, which means rather quick escape.

    I gather from the above that although helium can escape earths atmosphere, it does so very slowly.

    In the end, it seems foolish to me to release a known finite resource (finite as to what our technology can easily harvest today) to the hands of whim.

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