We’re running out of helium, and it’s a cause for concern

Inna Vishik over at Quora has a nice piece on how global reserves of helium are running short, and why this matters:

Many people do not realize that helium is a non-renewable resource.  It is made on earth via nuclear decay of uranium, it is recovered from mines, and once it is released into the atmosphere it is light enough to escape earth altogether.

On the question of whether we are running out, the existing answers are absolutely correct (YES !!), but I just want to add another voice .  This is an issue that many people outside the industries that use helium are unaware of, but one that will eventually affect them nonetheless.

The first linked article nicely summarizes why this  has become a pressing issue in recent years.

In response to the element’s scarcity, the United States has been stockpiling helium since the 1960s in a National Helium Reserve called the Bush Dome, a deep underground reservoir outside of Amarillo, Texas. By the mid 1970s 1.2 billion cubic meters of the gas was stored there. The current reserve is approximately 0.6 billion cubic meters, or roughly 4 times the current world market.
But, Chan notes, in 1996 the Helium Privatization Act mandated that the Department of the Interior sell off all the stockpiled helium by 2015. “As a consequence,” he says, “the United States government is selling the equivalent of 40 percent of the world market of helium at a below-market price.”
“This action discourages the active exploration of helium,” Chan explains

source: Probing Question: Are we running out of helium?.  A few months after this article appeared, congress passed a bill to maintain the reserves.

The question details focus on the negative impact that bad policy has onscientific users of helium, but I want to emphasize that there are many other uses of helium in industry and medicine, and a few are listed below:

  • Helium is used as a cryogen to cool down superconducting magnets forMRI machines.  This is the largest use of cryogenic helium.  This is one application where another cryogen can eventually be substituted because there are a number of new superconductors that can produce the required magnetic field when they are cooled with higher-temperature cryogens like liquid hydrogen, oxygen, or neon.  However, I doubt that hospitals and MRI manufacturers will make this move anytime soon.
  • Helium is used as an inert gas for welding.  In these applications, I thinkthey could substitute another noble gas if we were to run out of helium.
  • Helium is used in the semiconductor industry as an inert gas for growing semiconductor crystals, to quickly cool components, and to control heat transfer.
  • Helium is used for leak detection to test containers (such as airplanes) which will be subjected to high pressure or low vacuum for cracks. This is an application which another gas cannot be substituted because helium can flow through the smallest cracks.

The scientific community is perhaps most vocal about this shortage because:

  1. Many scientific experiments require liquid helium as a cryogen because it has the lowest boiling point.  Low temperature is often required to observe quantum mechanical phenomena cleanly (see: Zhun-Yong Ong’s answer to Why do scientists crave to reach the absolute zero?).  There is no substitute for this application.
  2. Research institutions are often lower priority when there are shortages.  I have had many experiments delayed because we could not get liquid helium for weeks, and this is a fairly normal experience.

What we can do:

  • Implement sensible helium exploration/storage policy such that mining companies are compelled to extract this resource and users are not subjected to erratic cost/supply.  In 2013, the US congress approved a bill to maintain the reserves and not sell helium at below market rate (Wyden, Murkowski Applaud Final Passage of Helium Legislation).  This makes for a steadier supply, but doesn’t change the fact that this resource is not renewable.
  • Limit wasteful use of helium, and recycle that which we do use.  For cryogenic applications, this means installing a closed recirculation system to re-compress helium which comes out of the exhaust of a cryogenic system.  For large-scale users such as the LHC, this has always been the operating procedure.  However, with the recent cost hikes and supply disruptions, individual research labs are beginning to implement such systems as well.  The startup costs are huge (over $100K), but the cost savings emerge in just a few years, and the convenience becomes apparent immediately.  In the future, I think (and hope) that such systems will not be optional for research and medical users of liquid helium.

What we can’t do:
We cannot produce more helium once it is all extracted from the earth.  All methods to produce helium on earth are so ridiculously costly that they are not worth discussing: 1) hydrogen fusion 2) bombarding other atoms (such as lithium or boron) with energetic protons in a particle accelerator.  In that sense, the problem of running out of helium is different from the problem of running out of petroleum.  For the latter people can and do synthesize alternatives such as ethanol fuel, not to mention the myriad non-carbon-emitting energy options out there.

However, for many applications where helium is used, there is no alternative to helium.

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