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Government Science

Why the World Is Running Out of Helium 475

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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  • Re:Running out? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:34AM (#33341998)

    It is actually light enough it can get high enough to escape into space.

  • Re:Running out? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:35AM (#33342024)


    In the Earth's atmosphere, the concentration of helium by volume is only 5.2 parts per million. The concentration is low and fairly constant despite the continuous production of new helium because most helium in the Earth's atmosphere escapes into space by several processes

  • Re:Running out? (Score:5, Informative)

    by stoanhart ( 876182 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:40AM (#33342138)
    Helium doesn't stay in the atmosphere, it is released into space. So yes, it is lost, since it takes hundreds of millions of years to regenerate via radioactive decay underground.
  • by Nihn ( 1863500 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:40AM (#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.....
  • Re:Running out? (Score:3, Informative)

    by jeffmeden ( 135043 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:44AM (#33342212) Homepage Journal

    That would be low-temperature gas liquefaction [], of course! What, you want it to be as easy and cheap as finding it buried in the ground? Well, keep dreaming!

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

    by Mikkeles ( 698461 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:52AM (#33342402)

    Hydrogen and helium are light enough so that they will fairly easily escape from the earth.

  • by djp928 ( 516044 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:57AM (#33342524) Homepage

    Helium is lighter than all the other gasses in our atmosphere. So it floats to the top and is eventually lost. The Earth isn't big enough to gravitationally keep any atmospheric helium, so it all eventually disappears into space.


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

    by Mostly Harmless ( 48610 ) <> on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:58AM (#33342546) Homepage
    How [] often [] do we need to repeat the same story?
  • by Sockatume ( 732728 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:01PM (#33342588)

    We're steadily losing our atmosphere to space by a process rather like conventional thermal evaporation, and we're losing helium far, far quicker than anything else because of its low mass and subborn refusal to form heavy compounds.

  • Re:Running out? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Ice Tiger ( 10883 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:02PM (#33342626)

    The gas is light enough to escape into space, once released into the atmosphere it is gone forever.

  • Re:can we make it? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Amouth ( 879122 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:04PM (#33342646)

    Or we can get it via Alpha decay []

    that is how most of ours was formed in the oil reserves in the US as a lot of them are encased in layers of extremely low grade radio active uranium.

  • Re:can we make it? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Sir_Sri ( 199544 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:20PM (#33342898)

    Helium can be formed a couple of other ways. One is fusion of course. The other is radioactive decay. We have lots of that, even very low activity decay going on, it's a matter of bothering to trap the helium from it. Of course if you can find some way to induce alpha decay then you could produce helium (e.g. if you could neutron induce it like with fission or something else). Some alpha emitters have a fairly long decay chain where they will spit out several alpha particles before they stop, so it's not like you're taking thorium, and then getting radium and helium, you'd get potentially 6 heliums and lead (or stop somewhere else on the decay chain).

    But overall, yes, the relative lack of helium in future could pose serious problems. Wasting it on party balloons is destroying a potentially very useful product.

  • Re:Why? (Score:4, Informative)

    by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:20PM (#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.

  • by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:23PM (#33342948) Journal
    Actually, we can make helium too. A tabletop Fusor can be made for a few thousand dollars and will make helium out of hydrogen as long as you keep it fed with enough energy. The only reason that we don't is cost - it's cheaper to get helium out of the ground than to make it. Exactly the same thing applies to oil.
  • Re:Running out? (Score:5, Informative)

    by darkwing_bmf ( 178021 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:36PM (#33343176)
    It was a strategic reserve for something we do not USE, blimps.

    Air Force Planning Giant Spy Airship []

    ILC Dover has extended its contract with Lockheed Martin to provide lighter-than-air "aerostats", very similar to a blimp. The aerostats are used in Afghanistan and Iraq to provide surveillance and communication for U.S. troops. []

    Iraqi conflict brings increased interest in military airships []

    And in case you were wondering, it's not just the US that's interested in modern airship technology. China has plans for them too. []

  • Re:Why? (Score:3, Informative)

    by scorp1us ( 235526 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:37PM (#33343198) Journal

    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)

  • by Goldsmith ( 561202 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:42PM (#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:For the children (Score:3, Informative)

    by Nerdfest ( 867930 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:43PM (#33343252)
    Actually, N2O makes your voice sound funny as well, but it makes your voice lower, not higher. You can do an excellent James Earl Jones imitation with a lung-full of N2O.
  • Helium's uses (Score:3, Informative)

    by DJRumpy ( 1345787 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:49PM (#33343342)

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

    REF: []

    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:'s_atmosphere []

    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.

  • by ultranova ( 717540 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:58PM (#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 []. 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.

  • Re:Why? (Score:3, Informative)

    by drerwk ( 695572 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @01:08PM (#33343632) Homepage
    Most, if not all, of the Helium on Earth is from alpha decay.
  • Re:Why? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 23, 2010 @01:19PM (#33343846)

    Most of the Helium found on Earth was produced as a product of alpha decay of radioactive elements, including U238, found almost everywhere. These alpha particles were trapped by local geology for a very long time. We cannot currently produce Helium in any meaningful amount and certainly not at the current cost (e.g., you can get 1 cubic meter of Helium from a party supply store for $25 US).

  • Re:Running out? (Score:4, Informative)

    by LWATCDR ( 28044 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @01:22PM (#33343896) Homepage Journal

    Actually no.
    It was for the Navy. The Army, Army Air Corp, and later USAF really didn't get into air ships much.
    They may have used it for barrage balloons but Hydrogen is just as good since you don't care a whole lot of those burn.
    And it was for not just blimps but also Zeppelins.

    When created it made all the sense in the world. In the 1920s and 30s how could anybody bomb the US? Only by airship. Well maybe if Mexico or Canada decided to go to war with the US but that was unlikely.

    BTW the Navy used it in AEW blimps up till the 1960s I believe and are thinking about bringing back airships as sensor platforms. We are not too concerned about SAMS since SAM sites tend to have a short life time and MANPADs lack the range to hit airships.

  • by Marcika ( 1003625 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @01:28PM (#33344004)

    "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 of magnitude more expensive...

  • by Waffle Iron ( 339739 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @01:30PM (#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 Pahalial ( 580781 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @01:32PM (#33344038)
    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.
  • one answer (Score:3, Informative)

    by way2trivial ( 601132 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @01:57PM (#33344476) Homepage Journal []
    "The CargoLifter CL 160 is a semi-rigid airship under development by CargoLifter AG, a German company that plans to build airships capable of carrying enormous loads for the bulk air freight market. In May 2002, the CL 160 development was halted due to financial problems and the status of the programme is uncertain. In June 2002, the company made an application for insolvency. In August 2002, work on Cargolifter's other major programme, the CL 75 lifting balloon was also halted."

    whereas these 747's [] see to hit bout 124 tons

  • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) * on Monday August 23, 2010 @02:05PM (#33344612)
    That's natural selection weeding out the wildlife not smart enough to avoid balloons.
  • by drerwk ( 695572 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @03:35PM (#33345968) Homepage
    Assume we go the p+B -> 3He + 9Mev.
    1 mole of p yield 3 moles of He - or 24 * 3 liters of gas at STP.
    It also yields 9 * 1.6*10^-13 * 6*10^23 = 9 *10^11 joules = 9*10^11 Watt seconds.

    So for 72 liters ( 0.072 m^3) of He, you would need a giga watt for about 15 minutes.

    Your table top fusor is now plasma, you just used up more electricity than I will likely use in my life, and you can fill a small balloon.
  • by CraigParticle ( 523952 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @04:30PM (#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 Anonymous Coward on Monday August 23, 2010 @05:20PM (#33347336)

    It was sold at a mandated fixed price. Dumbass.

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