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United States Science

Helium Crisis Approaching 501

Posted by kdawson
from the no-more-squeaky-voices dept.
vrmlguy writes "Within nine years the National Helium Reserve will be depleted, according to an article in Science Daily. It quotes Dr. Lee Sobotka, of Washington University in St. Louis: 'Helium is non-renewable and irreplaceable. Its properties are unique and unlike hydrocarbon fuels (natural gas or oil), there are no biosynthetic ways to make an alternative to helium. All should make better efforts to recycle it.' (The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has a local article with quotes from Dr. Sobotka and representatives of the balloon industry.) On Earth, Helium is found mixed with natural gas, but few producers capture it. Extracting it from the atmosphere is not cost-effective. The US created a stockpile, the National Helium Reserve, in 1925 for use by military dirigibles, but stopped stockpiling it in 1995 as a cost-saving measure."
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Helium Crisis Approaching

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  • by eldepeche (854916) on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:12AM (#22033474)
    <chipmunk voice>Oh, no!</chipmunk voice>
  • oh no! (Score:4, Funny)

    by opusman (33143) on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:13AM (#22033482) Homepage
    does this mean all the party balloons will be filled with hydrogen instead?

    oh the humanity!
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      It's not like any hydrogen-filled balloons have exploded or anything...

      ...wait.
    • No, acetylene! (Score:3, Interesting)

      by swb (14022)
      This girl I once fu^H^Hdated had this crazy, mad-scientist brother who used to put on a "show" on the 4th of July which involved trash bags filled with acetylene he got from some welding place. I think he used model rocket igniters.

      Anyway, he kind of won the Darwin award one dry very dry year when static electricity beat him to the punch. He only singed off the hair on his eyebrows and arms and didn't get serious burns or lose eyesight, but he quit the displays.
  • by smitty_one_each (243267) * on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:13AM (#22033490) Homepage Journal
    Remember to spell 'crisis' as 'business opportunity'.
    • by Rogerborg (306625) on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:31AM (#22033620) Homepage
      Hey, why is there such a shortage of resources? Can't capitalism solve that? Is it that the damn Earth doesn't get this whole supply/demand thing? Aargh, we're living on a commie planet!
      • by Rich0 (548339) on Monday January 14, 2008 @10:42AM (#22034370) Homepage
        Actually - Capitalism can solve this problem rather readily. The problem is that the US government subsidized Helium so that it is dirt cheap, so it is used in situations where it isn't essential.

        Natural gas producers throw it away because it costs more to make than you can sell it for. The only reason for that is the US used to pay $5/liter for it and sells it for $1/liter and no longer buys it. (I made up those numbers - they're just illustrative but reflect the problem.)

        Assuming there is a decent amount left underground once the shortage becomes acute people will be willing to pay more for helium. Once the market value raises above the cost to produce it people who dig it up will stop throwing it away. At that part the market would regulate its own helium supply/demand.

        There really aren't any externalities in this market that I can see (unlike with fossil fuels - where pollution/CO2 needs to be accounted for) - so there is no reason the market wouldn't work. The main reason it isn't working now is because somebody messed with the market for the last 50 years and it will take some time to correct...
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Vellmont (569020)

          The only reason for that is the US used to pay $5/liter for it and sells it for $1/liter and no longer buys it. . (I made up those numbers - they're just illustrative but reflect the problem.)

          Thanks for making up numbers that much of your argument hinges on. To make a real argument about the affect of the US government on Helium prices you'd have to get REAL numbers, not ones you just made up.
          • by Darth_brooks (180756) <clipper377@NoSpAm.gmail.com> on Monday January 14, 2008 @03:00PM (#22037858) Homepage
            Thanks for making up numbers that much of your argument hinges on. To make a real argument about the affect of the US government on Helium prices you'd have to get REAL numbers, not ones you just made up.

            Not necessarily. This article concerns itself only with the national helium reserve. The fact that someone was buying the product created a significant portion of the market. That buyer quit, demand fell, prices fell, profits margins went away, so companies got out of the business of making the product. It doesn't matter if the government was paying $1/liter, $.10/liter, or $1 brazillion dollars per liter. Demand fell, prices went with it.

            If there is money to be made, someone will make it. The article answers itself. There is a demand for the product, above and beyond party balloons, and that demand will be met.
  • by TheLink (130905) on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:14AM (#22033496) Journal
    Then it does seem a waste to use it on those toy balloons as it's almost a sure thing the helium will be "lost".

    Well as it gets scarce the prices will go up. Maybe some people should start hoarding now :).
    • by WK2 (1072560) on Monday January 14, 2008 @10:35AM (#22034264) Homepage

      Well as it gets scarce the prices will go up. Maybe some people should start hoarding now :).

      I thought of that. The problem is that it doesn't stay contained very well. If you bought one of those tanks, and never used it, it wouldn't keep for more than a few years. Even 100% air-tight containers might have a hard time containing helium.

  • A lost age (Score:2, Interesting)

    by wish bot (265150)
    Children's parties will never be the same.
  • by ozamosi (615254)
    So, what you're saying is, basically, that if you use $product, and stop buying more of $product, you eventually run out of $product?

    Amazing!
  • by Malevolent Tester (1201209) * on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:18AM (#22033524) Journal
    Build a refinery.
  • Want to replace the helium lost and create cleaner, more abundant energy? Now is a good time to pour some more money into fusion research to try and get over the hump and create sustainable fusion reactions.

    • by Picass0 (147474) on Monday January 14, 2008 @10:09AM (#22033964) Homepage Journal
      1) Inhales balloon
      2) ?????
      3) <squeakyvoice> Profit! </squeakyvoice>
    • by lachlan76 (770870) on Monday January 14, 2008 @11:01AM (#22034582)

      That's not really practical. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that a fusion reactor can convert 10% of the power from its reaction to electricity.

      The most promising reaction, according to Wikipedia, is that of:

      Deuterium + Tritium ---> Helium-4 + Neutron, delta-H = -17.6MeV/reaction[1]

      First of all, there is the Deuterium. This is harvested from Heavy Water, water that has one or two deuterium atoms instead of normal hydrogen atoms. This heavy water costs approximately US$300/kg[2] for consumers, and the deuterium produced approximately US$1/L[3]. This is a lot. Deuterium has a molar mass of approximately two g/mol, with one mole of a gas taking up one cubic metre at standard temperature/pressure. At US$1/L, this deuterium costs US$1000/m^3, or US$500/g (I'm assuming that gases volumes refer to STP. If I'm wrong, feel free to point this out---I've never dealt with bottled gas).

      Next is tritium. At US$30000/g[4], it's hardly cheap. For the reaction to take place, you need the two isotopes to react stoichiometrically (in the proper ratio). IOW, for each mole of tritium, you need a mole of deuterium. Converted to masses (tritium's molar mass is approximately three), this means that you need a ratio of 3g tritium : 2g deuterium. For each mole of Tritium, you will get a mole of helium. Because we're dealing with helium-4, the molar mass is ~4g/mol. The rest of the mass is made up by the neutron; this doesn't matter to us. Therefore, to make four grams of helium, we need three grams of tritium, and two grams of deuterium. At the prices given, this is US$91000 per four grams of helium, which, because it is one mole, is one cubic metre at STP. Helium, as of 1986 (yeah, yeah, I know) cost US$37.50/1000f^3. This is about US$1.30/m^3. Think about those prices. 9.1 x 10^4 US$/m^3, vs 1.3 x 10^0 US$/m^3. That's almost five orders of magnitude. There would have to be be a bloody good reason to be using helium at those prices.

      In conclusion:
      Helium-4 produced by fusion will cost five orders of magnitude more than current prices

      References:

      1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_fusion#Important_reactions
      2. http://www.straightdope.com/mailbag/mheavywater.html
      3. http://www.corrosionsource.com/handbook/periodic/1.htm
      4. http://fire.pppl.gov/fesac_dp_ts_willms.pdf
  • by GreatBunzinni (642500) on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:20AM (#22033536)
    Could someone please explain how exactly is there a crisis? I mean, the article states that the only thing that is happening is that the US national helium reserve is being depleted, an artificial stockpile program that stopped stockpiling due to being too expensive. Then it is stated that there are plenty sources of helium but no one bothers to take advantage of them due to the fact that at the moment it simply does not make anyone any money. So, to sum things up, no one bothers to store helium because it isn't cost effective and no one bothers to mine helium because there isn't any money to be made by it.

    Doesn't that mean that the offer outweighs the demand by a landslide? Doesn't this mean that there were a lot of people smooching the US national helium reserve for a long time?
    • by denzacar (181829) on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:23AM (#22033564) Journal

      Doesn't this mean that there were a lot of people smooching the US national helium reserve for a long time?
      Yeah... there is always at least one jerk at every party who still thinks that is funny.
    • by Mysticalfruit (533341) on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:46AM (#22033742) Journal
      I was just thinking the same thing... once the stockpile is depleted and helium goes (some price way higher than it currently costs) some refiner will look at one of their waste product pipes labeled "Helium" and well... they'll get really happy and call a company about a cryopump and some storage tanks... shortage solved...
    • by mcelrath (8027) on Monday January 14, 2008 @10:00AM (#22033880) Homepage

      One cannot "mine" helium. It comes dominantly from radioactive decay in the earth of Uranium and its decay products. But because it is so light, it generally leaks out of the ground, and escapes. Also because it is so light, it is not retained in the earth's atmosphere at all, and leaks into space (at which point it is irretrievable). Our supply right now comes from radioactive decay (over the last 5 billion years) which produced helium that accidentally got trapped in the earth (mostly in the same underground reservoirs as oil -- it is mixed in with natural gas). The half-life of Uranium is about 4.5 billion years, so the Helium is produced very slowly.

      The problem is that it has widespread industrial and scientific uses, and its loss will have a severe impact on our science and industry. In particular it is used as a coolant (gets down to about 4K, and is the best way to get things to that temperature). Also it is used in any application requiring high field superconducting magnets. The fancy new High-T_c magnets generally cannot support large fields, so in fields like particle physics which require big magnets, they generally use simpler materials (e.g. Niobium-Titanium for the main LHC magnets [physicsworld.com]) that only superconduct at temperatures much lower than the liquid Nitrogen boiling point.

      -- Bob

  • damn. (Score:4, Funny)

    by apodyopsis (1048476) on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:20AM (#22033540)
    damn. there goes my billionaire sky yacht. damn those pesky kids and their party tricks.... damn them.
  • Peak Everything (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Ralph Spoilsport (673134) on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:21AM (#22033548) Journal
    As a civilisation we are facing Peak Everything [amazon.com] a century of resource decline in the face of population expansion.

    It's not the End of the World, but you can see it from here, and if we're not careful Things Could Go Poorly. The problem is the smartest people around think "technology" will fix the "resource" problem. Given unlimited energy and resources, perhaps this is true, but we don't live in a world where there are unlimited resources. So, if we're at the top of the heap - look around you: this is as good as it gets.

    RS

    • by FudRucker (866063)
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TboJUxTIaC4 [youtube.com] because we are a virus to this planet!
    • Re:Peak Everything (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Aladrin (926209) on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:36AM (#22033652)
      Of course, given unlimited energy and resources, there wouldn't be a crisis to begin with.

      As for technology fixing the problem... How do you know it won't? 100 years ago, they could have said the same... And been wrong. Nuclear was invented after that.

      Every generation seems to think this is 'as good as it gets' and every generation has been proven wrong. Our technology is still advancing faster than ever.

      Am I putting blind faith in technology? No. I think we should conserve and recycle. I think we should specifically research the issues of the day instead of random other things. But I also know that researching 'random other things' has created some of our best technology.
      • Re:Peak Everything (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Angostura (703910) on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:53AM (#22033822)

        Every generation seems to think this is 'as good as it gets' and every generation has been proven wrong.


        I think you may need to adjust your frame of reference somewhat. Have a look at the fall of he Roman Empire, the Dark Ages, what happened to the Mayans, Easter Island etc. and think again about whether every generation has been proven wrong
        • Re:Peak Everything (Score:5, Insightful)

          by moosesocks (264553) on Monday January 14, 2008 @10:13AM (#22034000) Homepage
          Our understanding of Physics and Geology is undisputedly the best that it ever has been. One could even argue that our understanding of physical phenomena that occur for "human-sized" systems is nearly complete.

          Granted, we still have a long ways to go in terms of exploiting those laws of physics to generate energy/resources, but the fact remains that our "catalogue" of Earth's natural resources is largely complete.

          We know what materials are available to us, we know which of those materials can be used to generate energy, and we know that we're quickly running out of all of them. Although Nuclear fusion/fission offer the promise of "turning nothing into something", even our current supply of fissile material is most certainly finite (and we must take great care to properly re-process and re-use spent fuel).

          I'd love to be proven wrong, but I'm really not sure we're going to uncover any magical new energy sources in the near future. Fusion research should of course be pursued (preferably funding several different designs, as there are quite a few worthy candidates), although every current indication shows that viable Fusion generation is going to be *really* *really* difficult, even if we do figure out how to sustain the reaction.
    • Re:Peak Everything (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Reality Master 101 (179095) <RealityMaster101&gmail,com> on Monday January 14, 2008 @10:31AM (#22034228) Homepage Journal

      The problem is the smartest people around think "technology" will fix the "resource" problem. Given unlimited energy and resources, perhaps this is true, but we don't live in a world where there are unlimited resources.

      Sheesh. Every century seems to have people who think, "Yeah, the good times are rolling now, but judgment day is coming! Repent now!

      Will there be problems in the future? Of course there will. But then "magically" something will come along to solve them. To use the cliche, "necessity is the mother of invention." Look around you. We have supercapacitors that are being invented because of concern about oil prices (by the way, we will NEVER run out of oil. NEVER. It will just get more expensive until something else replaces it). We can fire up nuclear plants (and breeder reactors) anytime we want (and really, really need to). We've just had an article the other day about new solid-state solar stirling engines, and another one about mass-production solar cells to reduce cost. Some of them will pan out, some of them won't. But it is absolutely true that civilization isn't going to collapse. In fact, civilization is, at most, going to be slightly inconvenienced. SUVs will always be available (thank God).

      The solar system is FLOODED with energy. It really is effectively unlimited.

  • by Mantaar (1139339) on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:22AM (#22033554) Homepage
    ... not only of a looming Helium shortage - just google for "Aluminum Shortage" and take a look at the results... many resources on earth are becoming more and more scarce while everybody seems to only concentrate on energy resources.

    That, my friends is one of the best reasons for putting money into space exploration rather than wars for oil. We're still far from being able to actually mine anything that's not already on our planet, but we're not so far from a shortage in the critical resources that would make extraterrestrial retrieval of resources possible in the first place.

    With Helium it's actually a matter of re-using what we have - gas recycling hasn't been much of an issue in the past, but people need to hear about it. And please don't throw 'statistical evidence' at me that suggests 'there is no crisis'. Even the potential crisis is enough to be worried about it, if the implications are that dramatic. Much of our economical and scientific growth currently depends on the reckless abuse of non-renewable (or non-renewed) resources. We don't want to break Moore's Law, do we?
    • by DeeQ (1194763) on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:28AM (#22033584)
      What exactly uses Helium that is all that important?

      According to wikipedia the applications of helium

      * Because it is lighter than air, airships and balloons are inflated with helium for lift. In airships, helium is preferred over hydrogen because it is not flammable and has 92.64% of the buoyancy (or lifting power) of the alternative hydrogen (see calculation.)

      * For its low solubility in water, the major part of human blood, air mixtures of helium with oxygen and nitrogen (Trimix), with oxygen only (Heliox), with common air (heliair), and with hydrogen and oxygen (hydreliox), are used in deep-sea breathing systems to reduce the high-pressure risk of nitrogen narcosis, decompression sickness, and oxygen toxicity.

      * At extremely low temperatures, liquid helium is used to cool certain metals to produce superconductivity, such as in superconducting magnets used in magnetic resonance imaging. Helium at low temperatures is also used in cryogenics.

      * For its inertness and high thermal conductivity, neutron transparency, and because it does not form radioactive isotopes under reactor conditions, helium is used as a coolant in some nuclear reactors, such as pebble-bed reactors.

      * Helium is used as a shielding gas in arc welding processes on materials that are contaminated easily by air. It is especially useful in overhead welding, because it is lighter than air and thus floats, whereas other shielding gases sink.

      * Because it is inert, helium is used as a protective gas in growing silicon and germanium crystals, in titanium and zirconium production, in gas chromatography, and as an atmosphere for protecting historical documents. This property also makes it useful in supersonic wind tunnels.

      * In rocketry, helium is used as an ullage medium to displace fuel and oxidizers in storage tanks and to condense hydrogen and oxygen to make rocket fuel. It is also used to purge fuel and oxidizer from ground support equipment prior to launch and to pre-cool liquid hydrogen in space vehicles. For example, the Saturn V booster used in the Apollo program needed about 13 million cubic feet (370,000 m) of helium to launch.[2]

      * The gain medium of the helium-neon laser is a mixture of helium and neon.

      * Because it diffuses through solids at a rate three times that of air, helium is used as a tracer gas to detect leaks in high-vacuum equipment and high-pressure containers, as well as in other applications with less stringent requirements such as heat exchangers, valves, gas panels, etc.

      * Because of its extremely low index of refraction, the use of helium reduces the distorting effects of temperature variations in the space between lenses in some telescopes.

      * The age of rocks and minerals that contain uranium and thorium, radioactive elements that emit helium nuclei called alpha particles, can be discovered by measuring the level of helium with a process known as helium dating.

      * The high thermal conductivity and sound velocity of helium is also desirable in thermoacoustic refrigeration. The inertness of helium adds to the environmental advantage of this technology over conventional refrigeration systems which may contribute to ozone depleting and global warming effects.

      * Because helium alone is less dense than atmospheric air, it will change the timbre (not pitch[12]) of a person's voice when inhaled. However, inhaling it from a typical commercial source, such as that used to fill balloons, can be dangerous due to the risk of asphyxiation from lack of oxygen, and the number of contaminants that may be present. These could include trace amounts of other gases, in addition to aerosolized lubricating oil.

      Maybe I'm missing the usefulness of some of those but it doesn't seem like a big deal.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        >What exactly uses Helium that is all that important?
        >* At extremely low temperatures, liquid helium is used to cool certain metals to produce superconductivity, such as in superconducting magnets used in magnetic resonance imaging. >Helium at low temperatures is also used in cryogenics.

        Aside from all the scientific experiments that need the helium for cooling, I wonder how you could consider magnetic resonance imaging [wikipedia.org] as not being important.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by petermgreen (876956)
        Maybe I'm missing the usefulness of some of those but it doesn't seem like a big deal.
        lets see

        Because it is lighter than air, airships and balloons are inflated with helium for lift. In airships, helium is preferred over hydrogen because it is not flammable and has 92.64% of the buoyancy (or lifting power) of the alternative hydrogen (see calculation.)
        not that important because most really important uses of balloons (weather monitoring) are unmanned and so can use hydrogen.

        For its low solubility in water, t
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Sockatume (732728)
        It's the superconductivity which is really important. Nuclear imaging and experimental high-energy physics are pretty much dependent on magnets at liquid helium temperatures. So, no MRIs in hospitals, and the likes of CERN (and other Big Physics Things) would become multi-million-dollar holes in the ground. Both of those would be pretty disasterous steps backwards for mankind, all for the want of two protons, two neutrons, and two electrons.
    • by Rogerborg (306625)
      How much fuel is required to lift helium down from orbit?
    • scavenging (Score:5, Informative)

      by phorm (591458) on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:35AM (#22033646) Journal
      Companies are already looking at scavenging raw materials out of recycled industrial (or even consumer) waste. As we are able to extract less through mining, we may look more at extracting (what may be in the future) semi-precious metals through various forms of recycling. Already a lot of companies are springing up around this concept, and some are even making decent bucks. As availability through mining starts to fall short, I'd expect to see an increase in price followed by availability picking up again to some extent through re-use.

      This may be a pretty damn cool use for bio-science too, as I seem to remember articles about modified plants that could be placed about areas such as garbage dumps etc and absorb various metallic minerals from the ground. Maybe one day we'll see people growing trees of copper and aluminum over previous landfills, leeching bits of once-discarded waste metals from the ground.

      I wouldn't say that the lack of raw materials shouldn't be a concern, but in the perhaps it will actually force society to view such things as less "disposable" and further the science and industry of re-use in the future.
    • by swb (14022)
      Is aluminum really in that short of a supply, or is it a smelting shortage?

      There was a guy on Science Friday, Jerry Woodall of Purdue, who has a process of generating hydrogen from an aluminum alloy. I heard him on Science Friday on NRP and he never mentioned any kind of worldwide shortage of aluminum, although he was largely pushing the fact that the aluminum alloy used as a catalyst in his process was completely recyclable and reusable for the same process.

      I have heard there are supply problems related t
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by russotto (537200)

      just google for "Aluminum Shortage" and take a look at the results
      Aluminum shortage? Brought to you by the same people who if shown the Sahara desert would claim there's a silicon shortage, right? Actually, googling for "Aluminum Shortage" reveals that the shortage was of production capacity, not ore. It's over.
  • Funny thing (Score:5, Informative)

    by WindBourne (631190) on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:23AM (#22033566) Journal
    I commented about this the other day, and I was surprised at the comments that indicated that so many ppl did not realize that we are headed for issues on this. I only hope that we start recapturing it again. Since Natural gas prices have gone up, we have quit separating it. Combine that with Clinton having opened up the store, and we are losing our massive stockpile. Instead countries like Russia and China do it. IOW, the west is about to be dependent on countries on other countries.

    BTW, folks, helium is looked at for a number of important uses esp nuclear power, medical, and welding.
    • If the price increases enough every natural gas producer will separate helium. This will postpone the problem until we run out of natural gas, possibly 30 to 50 years away. I am sure that when the western world runs out of these resources our previous fair dealings with the Arab world and Eastern Europe will help us negotiate some fair deals.
  • Cost effective? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by phorm (591458) on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:28AM (#22033582) Journal
    Extracting it from the atmosphere is not cost-effective

    Not now, but as the availability goes down and focus turns to finding ways to extract helium more efficiently, along with a sharp price rise, then the incipient profit involved in extraction will likely create a market for atmospheric or some other method of extraction... or perhaps lead to the future ability to synthesise helium.

    My question: can any science-types here list some important uses of helium? I'm sure that there are some, but I can't think of any off the top of my head.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by jjon (555854)

      or perhaps lead to the future ability to synthesise helium

      Pretty much impossible (unless we get nuclear fusion working). Helium's not just some compound we can synthesize like oil or natural gas, it's an element like gold. And last I checked the alchemists didn't have much success at creating gold.

    • Re:Cost effective? (Score:5, Informative)

      by lachlan76 (770870) on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:54AM (#22033830)
      • Cryogenics---including the superconducters used by MRI machines---often uses liquid Helium, though MRI machines might be using high-temperature superconductors now; I'm not sure.
      • Welding---the various *IG welders use helium in mixtures of gases to protect the high-temperature metal from the air.
      • Lasers---Helium-Neon lasers are sometimes used.
      Wikipedia's Helium page. [wikipedia.org] has more details.
      • Re:Cost effective? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Rich0 (548339) on Monday January 14, 2008 @10:45AM (#22034398) Homepage
        Even if MRIs used high-temp superconductors they'd probably still need liquid helium. A few issues:

        First, most if not all high-temp superconductors are ceramics, which are hard to make into coils of wire. So that's why they don't get used much in magnets.

        Second, superconductivity is inhibited by magnetic fields - the lower the temperature the more field you can sustain. So even if you could barely get by with LN2 you still end up using He in magnets...
  • by JumperCable (673155) on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:30AM (#22033602)
    Subject says it all.
  • wha?! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by wwmedia (950346) on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:30AM (#22033606)
    is Helium like the second most common element in the universe?
    • Re:wha?! (Score:5, Funny)

      by leomekenkamp (566309) on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:39AM (#22033692)
      Yes, there is a fairly large amount of it only a few lightminutes away from earth; and the best thing is: tons of helium are being created every second! Unfortunately you have to overcome some issues, like gravitational pull and high temperatures.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by phagstrom (451510)
      Yes, but that does not make it the second most common element on earth. I don't think there are that many astronauts volunteering a trip to the sun to get some helium - even if it is for the sake of clowns everywhere ;-)
  • by Reader X (906979) <.moc.liamg. .ta. .xredaer.> on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:30AM (#22033614)
    FTA: helium is a rebel, a loner, and it does not combine with other atoms while hydrogen does

    Helium: the James Dean of elements. All by itself in the upper right hand corner of the periodic table.

    Which I guess makes hydrogen the Paris Hilton of elements? Alone at the top??

    Why oh why couldn't I have been a science journalist...
  • Supply and demand (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:38AM (#22033668)
    TFA says few natural gas producers recover the helium from their wells. If the price of helium rises due to scarcity, those producers will recover the helium. Problem solved.
  • there is going to be a lot of angry & sad clowns...
  • by tastiles (466054) on Monday January 14, 2008 @09:59AM (#22033866)
    Two important points about helium

    1. It's the smallest atom/molecule, since hydrogen is diatomic and H2 is a bit bigger than He. This makes it more difficult to store as it can get through any holes in a container

    2. It escapes from the atmosphere. So, once it's out of the container it goes into outer space and is gone forever.

  • Not cost-effective (Score:3, Insightful)

    by KlaymenDK (713149) on Monday January 14, 2008 @10:01AM (#22033890) Journal
    Extracting [Helium] from the atmosphere is not cost-effective. The US [...] stopped stockpiling it in 1995 as a cost-saving measure.

    Not cost-effective, eh? Well, in nine years, it will be! When your options are to use hydrogen, or tro to convince your friendly neighbourhood refinery to start capturing helium, then it will darn well be cost-effective to buy my extracted-from-the-sky-and-stockpiled-in-my-bunker helium instead...
  • by MrCopilot (871878) on Monday January 14, 2008 @10:10AM (#22033970) Homepage Journal
    2010 The Rationing Begins.

    Borthday Balloons will get smaller every year. Soon you won't be able to get them at your local grocery store.

    I personally blame the Mythbusters. What between the Raft, The several thousand balloons used to lift the kid, and the Lawn chair, they probably reduced our supply by 3 yrs alone.

  • by ssorrrell (991131) on Monday January 14, 2008 @10:27AM (#22034188) Homepage
    I live in Amarillo, TX where the Helium plant used to be. Check to the Amarillo Globe News to find out what happened to it. They closed it for financial reasons, not lack of helium. It sold last year to a developer. Had been closed ~10 yrs or so and had not been updated for decades before then. When they built it, it was the edge of town. Town grew out to it. This is a stupid story. There is no lack of helium only a change in government policy.
  • by Tom Womack (8005) <tom@womack.net> on Monday January 14, 2008 @10:49AM (#22034434) Homepage
    The USGS compiles a large quantity of useful information about mineral production and consumption, including helium:

    http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/helium/ [usgs.gov]

    You can buy helium from the US government at $2.037 per cubic metre, whilst the commercial price is nearer $3 per cubic metre; adjusting that would seem to make some kind of sense, since the US has 600 million cubic metres of the stuff in Amarillo.

    There are plants at Skikda in Algeria and somewhere in Qatar which aim to extract 25 million cubic metres from natural gas a year, but there have been some issues in getting them to work; both Algeria and Qatar's natural gas reserves contain about as much helium as the US total reserves do.

    It is impossible to substitute for helium for cryogenics; nothing else stays liquid at that low a temperature, and the ultra-refrigerators that get to liquid helium temperatures use helium as working fluid.

    I did my PhD at Nottingham University, which uses a fair amount of liquid helium; the arrangement there is that it's delivered to the MRI building at the top of the hill, and the boil-off passes through a liquifier and is used by the theoretical physicists at the bottom of the hill. I don't know what the theoretical physicists do with their boil-off; there are obvious practical problems with running piping from lots of separate labs to a central liquifier, and liquifiers are bulky and vibrating enough that you don't want to have them in the same lab as your delicate semiconductor-physics experiment.
  • by Fantastic Lad (198284) on Monday January 14, 2008 @12:48PM (#22035932)
    Doesn't this sound sort of like part of an old Adam West script?

    And on a side-note which is probably more relevant. . .

    Since the Hindenburg went up in flames because it had been painted with thermite and not because of the gas it had been filled with, perhaps our airships should be using hydrogen which has more lifting power than helium anyway.

    I've always felt slightly gyped by not getting to live in that reality where we had regular airship traffic and where classy chicks all smoked from foot-long cigarette holders. I want to wear a waxed mustache and say things like, "Now see here, what?" and not sound like an idiot like I currently do when I speak that way.
    -FL
  • by tacokill (531275) on Monday January 14, 2008 @01:43PM (#22036772)
    Extracting it from the atmosphere is not cost-effective at current pricing levels

    There, fixed it. Helium is available. We can extract it out of the air for anyone who needs it. However, the price they want to pay may not make it worthwhile to the supplier so we have fewer and fewer suppliers who can provide Helium and still stay in business.

    Saying "something is running out" never seems to take price into consideration. Same issue with oil. There is PLENTY of oil on the earth. The question is: how valuable is it to you (the consumer) to extract and use it? I guaran-damn-tee you that if Helium sold for $5000/cu ft -- we'd have PLENTY of helium. And most likely, I'd be in the helium sales business tomorrow. That's how capitalism works. If demand is out of whack with supply, then the price goes up and more suppliers come online to provide that product. If supply is out of whack with demand, then prices go down and fewer and fewer suppliers stay in that business.

    I see it something like:
    1. Go to Soviet Russia
    2. Find some old Koreans
    3. ????
    4. Profit!!!!!


    See how easy it works?

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