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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 eldavojohn (898314) * <[moc.liamg] [ta] [nhojovadle]> on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:31AM (#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 ...
  • by robot256 (1635039) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:34AM (#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:Running out? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by DIplomatic (1759914) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:36AM (#33342044) Journal

    Doesn't most of it just get released back into the atmosphere? Sure, it's not contained underground or anything, but it's not REALLY "disappearing", exactly.

    That's the problem. Helium collects in underground deposits and we drill down and collect it as it escapes. When helium dissipates into the atmosphere it is essentially gone to us.

  • by Jiro (131519) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:36AM (#33342048)

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

  • by WrongSizeGlass (838941) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:39AM (#33342116)

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

    Yet ...

  • by Urban Garlic (447282) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:46AM (#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.

  • Re:Running out? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:48AM (#33342338)

    Not only that. It was a strategic reserve for something we do not USE, blimps. Yes blimps. It was created so the USAF and Army would have a place to get helium for blimps. What both of those forces quickly realized is blimps are sitting air targets with any sort of SAM.

    What most of these guys are seeing is a end to the mega cheap way of getting helium and are thinking it will cost them 25% or more to get. They want the Gov to get back into the field of getting them cheap helium.

    Helium still has its place in the national defense. However, does it really need such a large operation to do so at this point in time?

    When the strategic reserve was made it made sense to build. Not so much anymore.

    It had, and is, creating a crazy depression in the market of what helium is worth with tax payers eating the cost. After 2015 when it is scheduled to run out you will see things like party balloons go way up in price. As that will be the comodities market over reacting. Then it will under bounce then wavy back and forth until we end up with a stable price.

    Does having cheap helium today help with things? Yes. Long term however it is not tax payer sustainable. In this case it is not a matter of building infrastructure to help everyone. It is providing a small group a cheap good. They can bear the burden of the cost as they also get all the reward...

  • by frank_adrian314159 (469671) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:49AM (#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.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:52AM (#33342394)

    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.

  • by xiando (770382) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:57AM (#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:Running out? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by hesiod (111176) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:03PM (#33342636)

    Yeah, I looked back at the summary and realized my statement was not really useful.

  • Re:Why? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by JamesP (688957) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:06PM (#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

  • by nine-times (778537) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:11PM (#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.

  • by Beyond_GoodandEvil (769135) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:20PM (#33342894) 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
    Sorry but wasting another finite resource(time) to worry about a non issue like this one is silly.
  • by HangingChad (677530) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:21PM (#33342906) Homepage

    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 Arlet (29997) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:30PM (#33343072)

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

  • by Volante3192 (953645) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:33PM (#33343130)

    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 Goldsmith (561202) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:50PM (#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.

  • by easterberry (1826250) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:51PM (#33343374)
    Except that the people going on about peak oil aren't the ones with the oil. They're the ones telling us to use less oil and find alternative energy sources.
  • Re:Running out? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by LWATCDR (28044) on Monday August 23, 2010 @01:16PM (#33343786) Homepage Journal

    Umm.... It leaves the earth. You know is is lighter than air so it goes up and away.
    It is not like Oxygen, or Argon, or Neon, or Nitrogen.
    It also isn't like Hydrogen which when released is so reactive that a good a precentage will combine with other elements and tend to stick around.
    So yes it is pretty much gone.

  • Re:Why? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by pnewhook (788591) on Monday August 23, 2010 @01:20PM (#33343866)

    Yeah, we can permanently destroy water to create electricity. Great plan.

    Yes, and it's up there with groping crops for biofuel. Humans are starving and we are feeding our FOOD to the MACHINES!! Great plan! When the machines realize we are competition for their energy, we're all screwed.

  • by robot256 (1635039) on Monday August 23, 2010 @01:31PM (#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:Why? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by bluefoxlucid (723572) on Monday August 23, 2010 @01:41PM (#33344198) Journal

    Efficient fusion reaction like we have now? Like almost as much power out as we put in?

    The sun is a runaway fusion reaction. It produces a lot of power and consumes all its fuel as fast as it can, no metering. Please examine its mass.

  • by MartinSchou (1360093) on Monday August 23, 2010 @01:55PM (#33344446)

    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?

  • by mangu (126918) on Monday August 23, 2010 @01:57PM (#33344480)

    I've got some bad news for you. Helium leaks through solid metal, in 30 years your tank will be empty.

  • by hankwang (413283) * on Monday August 23, 2010 @02:06PM (#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?

  • Re:Running out? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by LWATCDR (28044) on Monday August 23, 2010 @02:29PM (#33345044) Homepage Journal

    Why not?
    We deal with large amounts of chemical energy every day.
    While putting turbines like that over a city would be dumb even with Helium I don't see a big problem with using Hydrogen for this.
    Don't let the Hindenberg syndrome scare you. That crash wasn't any worse than hundreds of aircraft crashes that have happened since. It just happen to be filmed.

  • by TheSync (5291) on Monday August 23, 2010 @02:34PM (#33345120) Journal

    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 incentives to find new sources, and you reduce the incentives to obtain the most efficient use of the resources you have.

    This is ECON 101. Thinking that price fixing does not product shortages and inefficient use is the equivalent of physicists thinking that heavier objects fall faster than light objects in a vacuum.

    It should also be noticed that the history of "predicting" resource extinction is full of major mistakes, almost always on the side of thinking things will run out when they actually never do, such as the Simon-Ehrlich Wager [wikipedia.org]. Similarly, estimates of the total amount of oil resources in the world grew throughout the 20th century from 60 billion barrels in 1920 to over 1200 billion barrels today.

  • Re:Why? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by lgw (121541) on Monday August 23, 2010 @05:02PM (#33347114) Journal

    Do you know what doesn't matter to those problems? Inside-the-home water use doesn't matter. The majority of water use is for power generation. The majority of the remainder is used in agriculture. The majority of the remainder is used for landscaping. Yet the federal government tells me how much water I can use when I flush my toilet or takes a shower? It's the worst sort of nonsense.

    If you're on the ocean and have a "water shortage", try using saltwater in your generators (only Cali does, IIRC) before sacrificing basic hygine in pointless "feelgood" measures.

  • Re:Why? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by skarphace (812333) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @06:54PM (#33363000) Homepage

    What's your point? Hemp's not illegal. I even own a hemp golf shirt - feels great!

    Actually, in the US, it is illegal to grow Hemp. The reason being that the DEA can't tell the difference from the air. The clothes you wear made of the material were most likely grown and manufactured in Canada.

  • Re:Why? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by lgw (121541) on Wednesday August 25, 2010 @03:23PM (#33372624) Journal

    Ahh, but that's not a materials scarcity problem, but merely a cost of infrastructure problem. Since we charge money for drinking water, and for sewer, any such problem can be overcome by simply charging the real cost to the end user. That way we all have the freedom to decide between conservation and spending more to get more.

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