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The Outfall of a Helium-3 Crisis 185

Posted by samzenpus
from the mining-the-moon dept.
astroengine writes "The United States is currently recovering from a helium isotope crisis that last year sent low-temperature physicists scrambling, sky-rocketed the cost of hospital MRI's, and threw national security staff out on a search mission for alternate ways to detect dirty bombs. Now the panic is subsiding, what is being done to conserve, or replace, helium-3?"
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The Outfall of a Helium-3 Crisis

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  • Mind you, all I know about the subject is an old Macintosh game ...
  • Probably the same as to peak oil and other pressing issues - bury head in sand == ignore == trust in god, it's His will anyway.
    • Your metaphor would be valid if oil was a byproduct of automobile manufacturing.
    • by jamesh (87723)

      Your god gives you oil when you stick your head in the sand??? Boy did I pick a loser then!

      • by no-body (127863)
        It looks to me you are not familiar with the metaphor of someone sticking the head in the sand.

        Please look up the background in answers.com.
        What it means that in imminent danger somebody does not address the issue, looks away and perishes.

        This applies with peak oil and other environmental issues.
      • It's where they keep finding it in the middle east

        just sayin'

        • by no-body (127863)
          But not much longer - that's what peak oil means. And - world's industry is hooked on oil full blast with no replacement in sight - same for He.
          Irreplaceable - alternatives need to be found and implemented but...
  • Gross... (Score:2, Funny)

    by 2Bits (167227)

    The MRI imaging requires the patient hold his or her breath for 10 seconds. Instead of just breathing out normally, the patient exhales into a helium-impermeable bag

    Note to self: next time doing MRI in the hospital, do not inhale that stuff, don't want to imagine where it came from...

    • from TFA: Woods then super freezes the helium to remove moisture and charcoal filters it, making the helium good for a second use. Until the FDA approves the recycled helium for humans, however Woods anticipates this may be a way for veterinarians to access the coveted helium-3. not that it would matter
    • The MRI imaging requires the patient hold his or her breath for 10 seconds. Instead of just breathing out normally, the patient exhales into a helium-impermeable bag

      Note to self: next time doing MRI in the hospital, do not inhale that stuff, don't want to imagine where it came from...

      And why do they talk about a X-Ray of a chest then compare it to inhaling He-3 for an MRI? Wouldn't it make more sense to compare a normal MRI scan and an He-3 enhanced scan?

  • Temporary problem. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Mt._Honkey (514673) on Monday February 21, 2011 @01:15AM (#35264934)
    There are large amounts of He3 being made in heavy water reactors that is not being collected. Until now there has been little motivation to go through the trouble and expense of modifying these reactors to extract it, but it's not THAT hard. At some point it will just be done and then we'll be fine. This is only a short-term problem. DNRTFA, of course.
    • It depends on how much gas is produced, and what it costs to capture it. At $1500/L I cant imagine it would take that long to recoup the investment.
      • by Rei (128717)

        It's the same as the situation with indium. Indium is found in conjunction with most copper, lead, tin, etc ores. However, there's historically been such a low demand for indium that just a couple mines had recovery circuits. And right as indium demand started to rise, one of the mines went out of business as its primary ore was no longer economical. So indium prices went through the roof in 2004/2005. Of course, that triggers more mines to install recovery circuits, but it takes time to get a new reco

    • by Mt._Honkey (514673) on Monday February 21, 2011 @01:55AM (#35265116)

      Okay, now I've RTFA, and it is one of the worst science articles I've ever read outside New Scientist or Conservapedia. Let us delve in:

      But the isotope, helium-3, like many rare Earth elements, has been in high demand with only limited supply.

      Helium is not a rare earth element. I have a feeling this line was inserted just to pitch the link below it.

      The gas is part of the leftovers that come from cooking up a hydrogen bomb: you know two parts uranium; one part tritium

      No idea where that ratio came from. It's not true and irrelevant.

      While there are other ways of decaying tritium without needing to build a bomb to do it...

      Is the author fully ignorant of nuclear physics or is she gearing up for some kind of scam where she sells "Tritium Decayers" to the government?

      But if a patient takes a breath of helium-3, the resulting MRI is so bright it looks as though the patient inhaled a light bulb.

      Not as bad, but misses a great opportunity to explain HOW He3 helps lung imaging. He-3 doesn't exist in any significant quantities in the body, so you can tune the MRI to look for that nucleus and bam, you can see the shape of whatever you fill with it.

      Until the FDA approves the recycled helium for humans...

      The FDA needs to approve this? That's odd, I wonder why. Too bad you didn't explain why or tell us what stage of approval its in.

      For a party that suddenly saw the balloons all pop, despite the warnings, everyone jumped.

      wat

      • by hcdejong (561314)

        Helium is not a rare earth element

        You're right, it's not a "(rare earth) element". Unfortunately, journalists and other Muggles tend to use the term as "rare (earth element)", applying it to any element that's not abundant.

        • by peterxyz (315132)

          Helium is not a rare earth element

          You're right, it's not a "(rare earth) element". Unfortunately, journalists and other Muggles tend to use the term as "rare (earth element)", applying it to any element that's not abundant.

          The original text said

          But the isotope, helium-3, like many rare Earth elements, has been in high demand with only limited supply.

          badly worded, yes, but plausably trying to draw a link to the recently reported shortage of rare earth elements

        • by rgmoore (133276)
          The question is not with (rare Earth) element vs. rare (Earth element); it's with referring to 3He as an element at all. It isn't an element at all. He is an element, 3He is an isotope. This is an important distinction, and one that any competent science writer should get right every time.
      • by Enigma23 (460910)

        The FDA needs to approve this? That's odd, I wonder why. Too bad you didn't explain why or tell us what stage of approval its in.

        Most medical apparatus is single-use, unless you can autoclave it to ensure it is totally sterile for subsequent uses. The FDA would need to approve the recycling and filtering system to ensure that future patients won't catch anything from previous ones. IANAD.

      • I had never heard of Conservapedia before. Now I really [conservapedia.com] wish [conservapedia.com] I [conservapedia.com] hadn't [conservapedia.com].
        • According to the last link you provided, they have fewer than 39,000 registered users, and only 392 were active in the last 90 days. Not exactly the kinds of numbers that suggest they're actually influencing anyone.
      • The article has problems, but that "rare Earth" comment is merely confusing. It means elements or isotopes rare on Earth. People will misread it or associate it with the "rare earth" materials, as you did. That confusion is a very understandable one, and the editor should have noticed it.

        If it were spelled "rare earth", then it would be clearly wrong.

      • by LWATCDR (28044)

        Yea this was almost as bad as a lot of stuff on wired.
        The simple solution is to start producing tritium again. It really isn't even that hard to do.
        1. Build some heavy water reactors like the CANDU.
        2. collect the the H3.
        3. Wait.
        4. Profit.
        Actually the US needs to restart tritium production anyway to keep our nuclear weapons functioning as along as we are going to keep them. As too keeping them or not being a good idea others can debate that to their hearts content.
        Also HE3 is only used for a few very rare ty

      • The gas is part of the leftovers that come from cooking up a hydrogen bomb: you know two parts uranium; one part tritium

        No idea where that ratio came from. It's not true and irrelevant.

        Probably came from the Starfleet Tech Manual. You know, the section that also specifies the proper matter/anti-matter intermix ratio.

    • by DBHolder (1196557) on Monday February 21, 2011 @02:19AM (#35265200)

      The problem is not as easily solved as you make it out to be for a few reasons. The first being demand and the second being supply. The article doesn't really go into much detail but the real demand issue is the rising use by of He3 by the US gov in portal monitors. He3 tubes are by far the best devices available for neutron detection. Since 9/11 the US gov demand for He3 neutron tubes exploded and pretty much ate the entire stockpile. This has caused major headaches for everyone who uses He3 like the medical field and basic science research.

      On the supply side He3 is created when tritium decays on a 12 year half-life. The largest supply of this for many years was the US nuclear weapons program. Production now, however, is nothing like it used to be. Without the tritium production we don't have the He3. Even if we did we might not meet the kind of demand we have for He3 now. In order to make 1kg of He3 you need to let 2kg of tritium decay for 12 years. Or you need to let much larger quantities of tritium decay for shorter periods of time. Either way you need a lot more tritium than we have.

      Additionally getting He3 from heavy water reactors is probably not an option. The best way (the way the US gov does it anyway) to make tritium presently is by putting lithium rods into a reactor and then removing the tritium from the rods (its a fission product from lithium). While tritium is produced in heavy water reactors by neutron capture, the cross sections are very low. This mean you would need to separate the heavy water out from the tritium rich water (centerfuges) and then remove the tritium form the water molecules with electrolysis and then again separate tritium from deuterium. This ignores the fact that All the commercial reactors in the US are light water (normal H20) and countries that use heavy water (Canada) may not be interested in stockpiling tritium.

      Production difficulties aside tritium is just plain expensive. tfa cites the He3 price at $5000 a liter with a goal of more like $1500/L. This puts the price roughly $37500 a gram. Tritium is presently $25000+ / g and that is a subsidized price. Its estimated that actual production cost is upwards of $75000 / g

      Given all this, if we had a cheap easy solution laying around we would have done it by now.

      • by mcelrath (8027)
        4He is dominantly extracted from natural gas, and according to Wikipedia [wikipedia.org], the fraction of 3He in it is quite large. Why are we not processing natural gas, or its extracted helium, to remove the 3He? That seems a lot more efficient than making tritium, and waiting for it to decay...
        • by treeves (963993)

          From that same article: "Wittenberg also writes that extraction from US crustal natural gas, consumes ten times the energy available from fusion reactions."
          i.e. it's just not worth it.
          And I would not say 0.5 to 5 ppm is a large fraction.

      • by rossjudson (97786)

        So we have to build bombs, in order to detect bombs?

      • by Rei (128717)

        All the commercial reactors in the US are light water (normal H20) and countries that use heavy water (Canada) may not be interested in stockpiling tritium.

        I'm sure Canada is up for the challenge; they have a real can-du attitude. ;)

  • So is this one of the impacts of The Helium Privatization Act of 1996 or is separating the Helium-3 from the more common isotopes too energy intensive to have made the Bush Dome Reservoir a viable source?
    • Re:Other sources (Score:5, Informative)

      by XiaoMing (1574363) on Monday February 21, 2011 @01:49AM (#35265084)

      It's actually a fundamental physics + policy issue, but a different policy than the one you're referring to. As the article very briefly touched on, He-3 comes from the decay of Tritium. Tritium is the stuff that we put into the H-bomb (Fusion reaction rather than the atomic bomb's Fission reaction, basically redonkulously more powerful). The policy in question came from the end of the Cold War, where nonproliferation, disarmament, and the end of tritium creation.

      The physics comes in because tritium has a half life of ~13 years. This means that if someone gave you a canister of pure tritium, after two decades it'd be 1/4 tritium, and 3/4 He-3. Do the math for when the cold war ended, and you start to see why we're feeling the hit from the end of this "production cycle".

      It's also important to note that H-bombs, crafted from Tritium (Hydrogen-3), have a different yield once enough of the warhead has decayed into He3, which is actually one of the real main reasons why we're reducing our stockpile even though we didn't agree to the nonproliferation treaty. We're re-refining what tritium is left and putting it into new warheads (as a tanent: using more advanced warhead designs than the previous ones they replace too, so nonproliferation/stockpile-reduction in this case is a very generous casting).

      While there are many "alternative" ways to create He-3, it's pretty obvious from this situation that trying to buy $150 dollars of decayed bomb innards is definitely going to be cheaper than trying to buy refined nuclear-reactor extract. But at the same time, that was probably taken into account for the final price adjustment to $1500/L.

      • by afidel (530433)
        Yes but I have to assume at least some of the trapped helium in those reserves was created from the decay of naturally occurring Tritium. Wikipedia gives its abundance as 0.000137% of He which means unless it has some property that makes it easy to separate it would probably be extremely energy intensive to do like say cooling it to below 4K where the Helium-3 remains gaseous but the H-4 becomes liquid.
        • by XiaoMing (1574363)

          Apologies, forgot to mention but my "separation" scenario was an indirect reference to a couple threads up regarding light and heavy water nuclear reactors (as well as any that have the balls to use a Li breeder blanket).

          As an aside, calling tritium "naturally occurring" is about as much of an oxymoron as one can make, since any naturally occuring tritum that was on this planet would have turned into helium before it even cooled down and solidified. Within 100 years, of the Earth's composition settling dow

          • by afidel (530433)
            By naturally occurring Tritium I mean from sources like cosmic bombardment and the decay chain of other radioactive materials. Since the He-3 itself doesn't decay that means it should accumulate over geographic time and some percentage of any large concentrations of He will obviously contain some non-trivial amount of He-3. My question was around how feasible it would be to extract whatever amount is present in the Billions of liters of He we have stockpiled.
        • I could be wrong, but my understanding is that He-3 and He-4 aren't distributed uniformly across the various helium reservoirs on earth. In particular most of the deep reservoirs of helium are the byproducts of nuclear (alpha) decay, and so are very rich in He-4. On the other hand cosmic rays generate a lot of tritium (and therefor He-3) in earths oceans and earths atmosphere.

      • by Rei (128717)

        (as a tanent: using more advanced warhead designs than the previous ones they replace too, so nonproliferation/stockpile-reduction in this case is a very generous casting).

        I had a friend who as a translator on one of the old nuclear weapons and delivery systems stockpile reduction treaties with the old USSR before its collapse. She referred to the treaties as a scam because both sides wanted to get rid of their old weapons anyway, and this was just a way for each of them to get some positive PR out of it.

        S

  • by antifoidulus (807088) on Monday February 21, 2011 @01:24AM (#35264974) Homepage Journal
    The reason the helium is becoming scarce on earth is because it's too light and escapes from the earth's atmosphere. So how do we stop that? Simple, make it heavier like we did to our own fat asses. If there is one thing we are great at it, it's getting fat, why can't we extend that to Helium? "So Mr. Helium 3, would you like to supersize that today?"

    By the time we are done with helium it won't even be able to get off the floor, let alone escape the atmosphere.
  • "The fallout of the Helium-3 crisis"? Dyslexia?

    Am I the only one noticing the plummeting quality in journalism across the board? Besides the drawbacks of relying on spell-check and other automation, the gradual shift in the publishing industry towards the Internet seems to have dented profit margins significantly enough to affect the QA process. Books, papers, magazines ... they all seem to be suffering from this malaise.

  • by Animats (122034) on Monday February 21, 2011 @03:33AM (#35265456) Homepage

    This is a consequence of the decline in the U.S's nuclear industry. Tritium is usually produced in nuclear reactors. It's useful for several purposes, from boosting nuclear weapons to exit sign lighting in aircraft.

    Tritium is made by irradiating lithium with neutrons Tritium decays with a half-life of 12 years. He3, which is stable, is one of the decay products, and that's where He3 comes from. (This is a commercial application of transmutation.)

    The US used to have a reactor at Savannah River to produce tritium, but that was shut down in 1988. Since the early 1990s, there have been efforts to set up a new source, and presently, two power reactors of the Tennessee Valley Authority are used to produce tritium, A few extra lithium rods are put in, and changed out occasionally to recover the tritium.

    The He3 shortage is a side effect of the tritium shortage.

  • Some bastard keeps inhaling it to make chipmunk voices. Oh wait! That's me! *Puff* Squeak squeak suck it bitches!
  • Another possible use for He3 is in fusion reactors that can directly generate electricity with little radioactive by-product.

  • and as a direct consumer and producer, we have not been impacted by the H3 shortage at all really. Anomalous materials research continues on despite the recent resonance cascade event.

    regards,
    G. Freeman
    Theoretical physicist, Lead.
    Black Mesa Research

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