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The coming shortage of helium

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LINDAU, Germany—Quick: What do MRI machines, rockets, fiber optics, LCDs, food production and welding have in common?

They all require the inert, or noble, gas helium for their use or at some stage of their production. And that helium essentially could be gone in less than three decades, Robert C. Richardson, winner, along with Douglas Osheroff and David Lee, of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physics, said at the 60th annual Nobel Laureate Lectures at Lindau today. “Once it is released into the atmosphere, say, in the form of party balloons, it is lost to the Earth forever—it is lost to the Earth forever ,” he added.

Helium molecules, produced by the sun’s energy, naturally make up only about five parts per million of the Earth’s atmosphere. The rest of the gas—the second lightest element in the universe after hydrogen—escaped our planet 4.7 billion years ago.

The U.S. holds vast majority of the world helium stocks, managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management; the gas sits underground in natural salt domes atop granite in the Great Plains. Congress passed a law in 1996 dictating the sale of all U.S. stocks by 2015 to compensate the government for its investment in the helium and its storage. A 2000 study conducted by the National Research Council concluded that a helium surplus would exist for the foreseeable future.

Soon after that report, however, helium usage skyrocketed, as the gas yielded many benefits for industry and medicine. In a January 2010 report for the National Research Council, “Selling the Nation’s Helium Reserve,” Richardson and committee cochair Charles G. “Chip” Groat, a University of Texas at Austin geologist, described the pitfalls of the current U.S. strategy.

Many industrial processes rely on helium. In 2007, the most recent year for which figures are available, said Richardson, 28 percent of helium use went to cryogenics for MRI and nuclear magnetic resonance machines—nearly all of it for clinical purposes (scientific cryogenic uses are only 3 percent of that total). Some 26 percent of helium is used in pressurizing and purging of rockets; another 20 percent for welding; and 13 provides inert atmospheres in the production of fiberoptics, LCDs and food.

Richardson recommends several steps to ensure helium availability in the future. First, prices should be raised by a factor of 20. “The world price of the gas is ridiculously cheap,” said Richardson, as a result of the U.S. policy. Second, substitutes can replace helium for certain areas—argon can be used in welding, for instance. Last, cryogenic helium users should recycle the gas in closed systems; already, MRI machines use such systems for their powerful superconducting magnets.

“That which God has taken 4.7 billion years to create will be dissipated in a little more than 100 years,” noted Richardson. “One generation doesn’t have the right to determine availability forever.”

Learn more about the Lindau meeting at Scientific American‘s sister publication Nature, the international journal of science, and a special Web site featuring Lindau blogs, organized by Nature and Spectrum der Wissenshaft, Scientific American ’s German language edition. A slide show, Discoveries 2010: Energy, covers another Lindau initiative, a museum exhibit on energy sources.

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  1. 1. GRLCowan 3:41 pm 06/30/2010

    The 3.5 billion tonnes of potentially very expensive helium in the atmosphere actually must mostly be much younger than the Earth, because as the Earth has aged, its uranium and thorium inventory have been producing several trillion tonnes of helium. This production continues today at a rate near 1000 tonnes per year. It was of course higher back when more of the alpha-decayers was still around.

    The time for one atmosphere-load to flow through the atmosphere — in at the bottom, out at the top — is of course 3.5 million years, 3.5 Gt over 1000 t/y.

    — G.R.L. Cowan (‘How fire can be domesticated’)

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  2. 2. rneuhaus 3:45 pm 06/30/2010

    Yes, the cheapest extraction of helium would be mining in the moon with robots. That would be soon, since it will eventually be a good economic justification in satisfying the exponential demand for helium.

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  3. 3. Quinn the Eskimo 8:43 pm 06/30/2010

    This is soooo simple.

    Hydrogen is the larger component of water.

    Take Hydrogen, burn off the heavy part with a butane torch. You’re left with Helium. Which every chemist knows is simply Hydrogen ash.

    Use seawater. Lots of that around and some even contains OIL.

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  4. 4. RobertJCraigs 10:49 pm 06/30/2010

    I HOPE you are joking!
    Maybe you could squeeze some hydrogen REALLY hard to force nuclear fusion to helium! Better start working out.

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  5. 5. Doc2010 9:45 am 07/1/2010

    DOOOOD!! (Quinn the Eskimo) .. that’ is soooo scientifically stupid as to render any further comment absurd.

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  6. 6. billsmith 4:50 pm 07/2/2010

    By ‘burn’ Quinn obviously meant ‘use in a thermonuclear reaction’ and ‘butane torch’ was a poetic language for ‘unimaginable crushing pressures and temperatures that render ordinary matter into a charged soup where nuclear forces rule over chemical ones’

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  7. 7. Some guy 2:07 am 07/3/2010

    So should I invest my life savings in helium? a 20x increase sure would help…

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  8. 8. Doc2010 7:18 am 07/3/2010

    WEll, "quinn the eskimo"… Bee Piss would have too little energy density (unless you are a a bee larva) .. so, no.
    The point was, that deriving helium from sea-water, AFTER separating the hydrogen, would still require solar core pressures and temperatures. Got that technology in your basement do ya? Your statement was stupid and irrelevant .. was MY point. That stands. Most who inhabit this reply site have some scientific knowledge and are amused by stupidity. Please continue to babble away.
    regards, dude

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  9. 9. jessez13 4:56 am 07/4/2010

    Some guy
    The price of helium will go up significantly when the US stops selling off our stockpile. If that is sooner or later that does not matter. I have heard worse investment statigies.

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  10. 10. Doc2010 10:43 am 07/4/2010

    Certainly, that investment potential is a possibility .. if you expect your portfolio to mature in 2055. Definitely not a short-term plan. Perhaps for your grand kids … although, if the current administrations liberal policies are continued, 100k might get one of them thru the first term in a State College.

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  11. 11. a2103159 9:11 pm 07/4/2010

    why does it take god 4.7 billion years to create this stuff? should we be going to church more often to pray for faster production?

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  12. 12. doug l 7:03 am 07/5/2010

    Run for your lives!!! The sky is falling, the sky is falling…up!

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  13. 13. Doc2010 11:55 am 07/5/2010

    OK, lets settle this lunacy.. helium is produced CONSTANTLY by radioactive decay of alpha particles (particularly Uranium). It is also released as a by-product of the fractionalization process of crude oil refining. It is also constantly lost to space from the atmosphere, hence it’s low atmospheric concentration. When the earth is no longer "radioactive" this natural process will cease, as will life on earth (a few billion years hence). Get a grip my loonys .. the sky is not falling, excluding chicken Little’s paranoia .. we’re all good.

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