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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:3, Interesting)

    by Jeremy Erwin ( 2054 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:34AM (#33341996) Journal

    Let's just say that the wasted gas tends to float out of reach....

  • Re:can we make it? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Rich0 ( 548339 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:57AM (#33342522) Homepage

    It is way easier than that - helium is about 25% of the entire ordinary matter content of the universe. It is floating around everywhere. Just pick up any average piece of anything and extract the 25% which is He.

    Oh, one minor caveat - this plan won't work if you happen to live in an area which greatly deviates from the average, such as on a terrestrial planet. Also, if you live in an area mostly devoid of matter (like 99.9999% of the universe) it might not be practical. But, hey, it works great for gas giants and stars, and that is most of what you can see up in the sky at night anyway... :)

  • by EWAdams ( 953502 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:13PM (#33342782) Homepage

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

  • by lite99 ( 1666261 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:24PM (#33342958)
    But the market is not some mystically separate domain, it consists of people. People in the market speculate, hide information, spread false rumours, break all available laws, make deals with their friends and associates, and sometimes with them only. How can anyone be so naive to believe that the market finds a fair balance between supply and demand, in this particular case where the number of players is fairly limited? Why would it differ from all other commodities - think about gold. The price fluctuates, but mainly not because of variations in supply and demand... In a sense you are right though, that is how markets are supposed to work. But it is only in theory and far from the reality we live in. We greedy bastards :-/
  • Macey's Parade (Score:3, Interesting)

    by coldmist ( 154493 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:28PM (#33343030) Homepage

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

    Interesting stuff.

  • by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:28PM (#33343036) Journal
    When the helium on Earth runs out, space flight suddenly looks a lot more commercially interesting. Helium is abundant in the universe, it's only rare at the bottom of our gravity well. There are large deposits on the moon, there almost certainly are on asteroids as well, and it can be harvested from the solar wind. With sufficiently cheap energy, you can also make it from hydrogen in a fusor. If you want something to motivate commercial space flight, use up the helium reserves quickly and then watch people compete to import it.
  • Re:Why? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ultranova ( 717540 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @12:47PM (#33343324)

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

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

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

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 23, 2010 @01:09PM (#33343642)

    For all the dead and ill animals in the wild that I've seen as a result of eating rubber balloons that have floated from cities and dropped in the wilderness...I'm glad helium is running out. Fucking stupid, irresponsible people that enjoy a few seconds of fun releasing balloons into the air, thinking no harm is caused elsewhere....they should sent the clean up beached whales the died from getting a toy balloon stuck in it's blow hole.

  • by bluefoxlucid ( 723572 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @01:38PM (#33344130) Homepage Journal

    The Hindenburg had 36 passengers and 61 crew, so 97 passenger load total. 10 crew should be enough (Pilot, Copilot, Backup Navigator, Mechanic, Mechanic, Stewardess, 4 more) on a modern blimp, so 87. "Airship" seems to me an apt term, since these travel at around 80mph or so with a passenger load of maybe 100.

    Although the throughput's lower, this should supply ample cargo load capacity for continuous supply line: taking out the passenger amenities (seats!), a cargo bay has higher capacity by weight due to having less heavy shit like 80 10kg chairs (800kg). Plus nobody says a barrel of oil needs to reach the US coast from Africa in 1 day; just send 10 barrels every day, and after a month you have a continuous 10 barrel per day supply line even though it takes a month for barrel X to get from one continent to another. We could say the same for uncut diamonds, ore, grain, nuts, wood, bottles of Evian, toys, video games, computer software (okay screw that, press CDs locally), etc. Perishables and small shipments need jet craft.

  • by spinkham ( 56603 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @01:47PM (#33344312)

    Personally, as a Christian I'd like to see the line that says the earth isn't ~4.5 billion years old, because I can't find it...

    Young Earth Creationism (hence YEC) is a hyper-literalistic reading of the book of Genesis that has been always somewhat rare in Judaism, and not always supported by even those considered mainline Christian fathers.

    For YEC to be true, pretty much everything we think we know about physics, astronomy, cosmology, molecular biology and genomics must be wrong.

    The good news is that YEC is not the only, or even the best reading of Genesis. See this FAQ [] for a brief overview, this book [] for a much more complete overview, and this book [] if you want a really good, in-depth study of the book of Genesis from a conservative scholar. It's a bit dry, and doesn't give you conclusions as much as really dig into the text, but it's highly recommended if you're serious about approaching the issue rigorously.

    I've read many books on the topic, and in my opinion these are the best of the lot. Especially Beyond The Firmament, which is fairly easy read and the best introduction to the issues I've seen.

    Perhaps obviously, these books are geared more towards Christians and showing them how to deal with what we believe is an important book, and not towards convincing others that Christianity and the Bible are true. Except perhaps that they might show that not all Christians are (complete) loonies...

  • by Goldsmith ( 561202 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @02:40PM (#33345194)

    Because a government is supported by taxes, backed by a military, not accountable to share holders and has several other special privileges.

    Is this really confusing? A government is not the same as a private individual. This case perfectly demonstrates that. Why does the government have this helium? Did they pay for it, or just claim it? Did they pay for the storage space, or just claim it? Do they pay taxes on its sale? These are not hard things to think of.

  • by drerwk ( 695572 ) on Monday August 23, 2010 @09:18PM (#33349690) Homepage
    World energy consumption is 15 terawatts. Assuming my gp calculations are correct, and all energy was produced by fusion, there would be 36 million cubic meters of helium created each year. At that rate it would be 30 years to generate the billion cubic meters that was in the reserve in 1995.
  • Re:can we make it? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Sir_Sri ( 199544 ) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @03:36PM (#33360030)

    Very true, some of it is politcal. You don't want people in the habit of wasting helium for the fun of it and then thinking it isn't worth anything.

    It's much the same with water conservation, whether you use a low flow toilet or a low flow shower isn't actually going to change how much water you waste by much (waste I would consider evaporated and lost to the existing water system, relative the amount typically received from similar sources).

    Helium use is broken down here:

    Which is the latest I found. Even wasting 4 or 5% is still, IMO a lot of waste if there's something it can be used for that's actually you know... useful.

    All of this somewhat in contrast to oil and water, in that you can always get water, it's just more expensive. And most of what you do with oil can be done with other things, maybe not as efficiently but it can be done, and you can make oil, albeit in a lossy way. What you need helium for is very hard to replace with anything else (notably cooling), but it's prohibitively hard to actually make more of it (for the moment, and banking on the free market resolving the issue is not my idea of good planning).

The best defense against logic is ignorance.