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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 19, 2012

Running Out of Helium?

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Posted by Derek

Update: fixed link in first paragraph - sorry!

According to this article, and some others like it over the last few years, we are. Sale of the US government's strategic helium reserve lowered prices, which led to increased use, which now appears to be leading to shortages. (If you want to see a distorted market, look no further).

I'm no expert in this field, but my guess is that we're mainly running out of cheap helium. Continued oil and natural gas exploration should reveal more of it, but just as those petrochemicals won't be cheaper, helium won't be, either. And come to think of it, I'm not sure how much helium is to be found in shale gas and the like, as opposed to traditional formations. Some quick Googling suggest that shale is too porous to contain much of the helium, which I can well believe.

So prepare to pay even more to keep those NMR magnets running - it's hard to imagine that it'll ever get cheaper than it's been. Peak Oil, I'm not so sure about, but Peak Helium may have already been realized. . .

Comments (26) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News


1. Paul on March 19, 2012 11:17 AM writes...

Eventually we'll mine helium on Uranus. That's quite a ways off, though. :)

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2. Joe Loughry on March 19, 2012 11:28 AM writes...

If nuclear fusion power plants ever become cost-effective, large amounts of He will be a byproduct of the process.

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3. Canageek on March 19, 2012 11:32 AM writes...

We could easily stave this off by using hydrogen gas more. It is going to be really bad if all of a sudden we can't use NMR, MRI, FT-ICR-MS or Orbittrap-MS because we can't afford enough helium. Yes, it is a little explosive, and we probably shouldn't be making kids balloons with it, but do we really need to be doing that anyway? Also: Blimps; do we really need to have one over every sports game, running on helium?

I'm really hoping someone makes a liquid nitrogen superconductor that can carry enough power for an NMR soon.

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4. Lyle Langley on March 19, 2012 11:46 AM writes...

What, a shortage of He....Noooooo! (Said in a high-pitched voice after sucking it out of a cannister because it's cheap and I like the sound of my voice this way).

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5. Nadine on March 19, 2012 11:47 AM writes...

Here's the point to start recycling Helium in the US as well. That's common use over here in Europe (e.g. at the LHC (large hedron collider), CERN in Geneva), at least for big consumers.

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6. barry on March 19, 2012 11:48 AM writes...

in the long run, I'm betting on superconducting magnets function at temperatures attainable with cheap liquid nitrogen. In the short term, we're not out of helium yet.

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7. Anonymous on March 19, 2012 12:46 PM writes...

Assuming this to be a real concern I would expect to see a Helium futures market take advantage of the expected price increase. That in turn would encourage commercial stockpiling of Helium and thus drive the short term price up.

I'm not saying that it isn't a real concern but I've yet to read an article on the subject that explained the missing economics.

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8. John Schilling on March 19, 2012 1:22 PM writes...

#2: If all electricity production worldwide was by D-T fusion at 10% efficiency, the resulting helium production would amount to ~10% of present global demand. So, not going to solve the problem.

#3: Ballons large and small, including airships, make up less than 10% of world helium demand. So dismissing them as an irrelevant luxury or demanding they run on hydrogen, isn't going to solve the problem either. Most of the world's helium is used in applications where hydrogen is absolutely not a substitute (hydro-arc welding, anyone?)

#7: It is difficult to establish a futures market, or any other sort of market, when one is dealing with a monopoly supplier, and particularly so when that supplier is as economically fickle as the United States Government. And private stockpiling is complicated by the technical challenges inherent in trying to store large quantities of helium.

My own interest in helium stems from its usage as a pressurant in rocket propellant tanks. That's going to be difficult to replace, or recycle. For the moment spaceflight is expensive enough that anyone who can afford a rocket can afford to outbid everyone else on the planet for the requisite helium. But some of us would like to change that, and helium prices are on our watch list.

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9. ted the chemist on March 19, 2012 1:36 PM writes...

methane and H2S from Uranus - not helium!

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10. Matt on March 19, 2012 2:21 PM writes...

7Li + p => 8Be* => 2 4He

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11. Biotecher on March 19, 2012 2:28 PM writes...

Not only is supply an issue but Earth's gravitational pull isn't sufficient to prevent helium from escaping our atmosphere permanently.

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12. cynic on March 19, 2012 2:50 PM writes...

Was the "this article" supposed to be hyperlinked? Or does everybody but me already know all about the article?

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13. Matt on March 19, 2012 3:03 PM writes...

The atmosphere is roughly 5 ppm He. Before it became available from certain natural gas deposits, He was fractionated from the atmosphere like other rare noble gases. So it won't run out altogether, but you might find it scarce at prices you're willing to pay.

This is the story of Peak Oil too, actually. You can synthesize methanol from hydrogen and CO2, and gasoline from methanol, but you won't like the price for synthetic gasoline.

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14. J. Peterson on March 19, 2012 3:09 PM writes...

What does "this article" refer to. Link?

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15. anonymous on March 19, 2012 3:52 PM writes...

#9: hehehehe!

(don't forget to watch out for the Klingons)

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16. therookie on March 19, 2012 6:21 PM writes...

I guess we wont be needing any magnets for NMR in the future!!

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17. Paul on March 19, 2012 7:14 PM writes...

#13: with the current price differential between natural gas and oil in the US, making gasoline from natural gas (via any of several routes) would likely be very profitable. Whether this price differential will persist is the question.

Aside: the bulk chemicals industry is sitting very pretty in the US right now, due to the low price of ethane. Shale gas has lots of ethane in it.

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18. Sisyphus on March 19, 2012 8:01 PM writes...

Goldman Sachs probably has a hand in this market manipulation, too.

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19. Jonadab on March 19, 2012 9:50 PM writes...

> Eventually we'll mine helium on Uranus.

We could, in theory, do that with today's technology, but for such a plan to be economically viable in the foreseeable future, the market for helium would have to be sustainable in bulk at something on the order of a million dollars an ounce, perhaps a couple of orders of magnitude higher. (That million-an-ounce figure is based on the assumption that discounting your initial capital investment you could in the long term make each round trip, including getting out of both gravity wells, for only a hundred billion smackers -- which is cutting it pretty thin -- and that you could bring back about ten thousand pounds of helium per trip, which is a rather substantial payload for an interplanetary flight.)

In other words, it might actually be cheaper to make it by smashing hydrogen and deuterium together in a particle accelerator.

It's certainly not going to be worth mining off-world so people can fill birthday balloons with the stuff. There are other lighter-than-air gasses that we could use for that, some of which can be made from rather more plentiful elements. It's not worth it for welding, either, because the light weight of helium isn't critical for that, so you could use heavier noble gases, which are currently less common but have less tendency to escape Earth's gravity well and thus could be recovered repeatedly via fractional distillation of atmosphere and used more or less indefinitely. That's more expensive than how we currently get helium, but it's MUCH cheaper than bringing something in from off world.

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20. Steve on March 20, 2012 6:41 AM writes...

I think a bigger problem is the shortage of helium-3.

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21. DannoH on March 20, 2012 7:44 AM writes...

FNAL did an article in one of their magazines a few years ago...

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22. isodope on March 20, 2012 10:23 AM writes...

Tritium (H-3) is a biproduct in nuclear reactors and can be produced by the ton. It is also produced by the ton in the atmosphere by solar radiation. half life = 12 yrs. H-3 = He-3 + e-. That is one source of He in the atmosphere besides leaking from the Goodyear blimp and your NMR. Let's mine that before we take off for Uranus.

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23. Paul on March 20, 2012 6:33 PM writes...

[tritium] is also produced by the ton in the atmosphere

No, the rate of production of natural tritium in the atmosphere is around .5 atoms/cm^2/s, which would lead to an equilibrium amount of only a few kilograms.

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24. Dystopia Max on March 22, 2012 9:39 AM writes...

Well OBVIOUSLY we have to invade Barsoom for its Helium.

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25. NMRmothballer on March 27, 2012 10:43 AM writes...

Considering 95% of those NMR's are being moth balled these days, probably won't have that much of an impact

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26. David Davidson on June 15, 2012 9:43 AM writes...

Late to the party here, but Shale is too porous to contain helium? That doesn't make any sense, we seem to be mixing up porosity and permeability. It could be too permeable to contain it, I suppose, but considering that Shale is the sealing surface on a high percentage of oil and gas traps, I doubt that's true either.

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