Author Topic: Helium Shortage  (Read 1492 times)

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Offline shnozzola

Helium Shortage
« on: May 08, 2013, 04:15:51 PM »
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There's a global shortage of refined helium, and it could get worse if the federal government doesn't stay in the business of selling helium.
To understand how we got here, we need to go back to nearly a century ago to World War I. Germany started building huge inflatable aircraft, and to keep up, the U.S. started stockpiling helium. That federal helium reserve is located outside Amarillo, Texas.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsallpolitics/2013/05/08/181996604/congress-considers-how-to-deflate-nations-helium-reserve

Quote
Helium is the second lightest element and is the second most abundant element in the observable universe, being present at about 24% of the total elemental mass, which is more than 12 times the mass of all the heavier elements combined.  On Earth it is thus relatively rare—0.00052% by volume in the atmosphere.

After an oil drilling operation in 1903 in Dexter, Kansas, produced a gas geyser that would not burn, Kansas state geologist Erasmus Haworth collected samples of the escaping gas and took them back to the University of Kansas at Lawrence where, with the help of chemists Hamilton Cady and David McFarland, he discovered that the gas consisted of, by volume, 72% nitrogen, 15% methane (a combustible percentage only with sufficient oxygen), 1% hydrogen, and 12% an unidentifiable gas.[4][20] With further analysis, Cady and McFarland discovered that 1.84% of the gas sample was helium.[21][22] This showed that despite its overall rarity on Earth, helium was concentrated in large quantities under the American Great Plains, available for extraction as a byproduct of natural gas.[23]

This enabled the United States to become the world's leading supplier of helium. Following a suggestion by Sir Richard Threlfall, the United States Navy sponsored three small experimental helium plants during World War I. The goal was to supply barrage balloons with the non-flammable, lighter-than-air gas. A total of 5,700 m3 (200,000 cubic feet) of 92% helium was produced in the program even though less than a cubic meter of the gas had previously been obtained.[5] Some of this gas was used in the world's first helium-filled airship, the U.S. Navy's C-7, which flew its maiden voyage from Hampton Roads, Virginia, to Bolling Field in Washington, D.C., on December 1, 1921.[24]

Although the extraction process, using low-temperature gas liquefaction, was not developed in time to be significant during World War I, production continued. Helium was primarily used as a lifting gas in lighter-than-air craft. This use increased demand during World War II, as well as demands for shielded arc welding. The helium mass spectrometer was also vital in the atomic bomb Manhattan Project.[25]

The government of the United States set up the National Helium Reserve in 1925 at Amarillo, Texas, with the goal of supplying military airships in time of war and commercial airships in peacetime.[5] Because of a US military embargo against Germany that restricted helium supplies, the Hindenburg, like all German Zeppelins, was forced to use hydrogen as the lift gas. Helium use following World War II was depressed but the reserve was expanded in the 1950s to ensure a supply of liquid helium as a coolant to create oxygen/hydrogen rocket fuel (among other uses) during the Space Race and Cold War. Helium use in the United States in 1965 was more than eight times the peak wartime consumption.[26]

After the "Helium Acts Amendments of 1960" (Public Law 86–777), the U.S. Bureau of Mines arranged for five private plants to recover helium from natural gas. For this helium conservation program, the Bureau built a 425-mile (684 km) pipeline from Bushton, Kansas, to connect those plants with the government's partially depleted Cliffside gas field, near Amarillo, Texas. This helium-nitrogen mixture was injected and stored in the Cliffside gas field until needed, when it then was further purified.[27]

By 1995, a billion cubic meters of the gas had been collected and the reserve was US$1.4 billion in debt, prompting the Congress of the United States in 1996 to phase out the reserve.[4][28] The resulting "Helium Privatization Act of 1996"[29] (Public Law 104–273) directed the United States Department of the Interior to start emptying the reserve by 2005.[30]
Helium produced between 1930 and 1945 was about 98.3% pure (2% nitrogen), which was adequate for airships. In 1945, a small amount of 99.9% helium was produced for welding use. By 1949, commercial quantities of Grade A 99.95% helium were available.[31]

For many years the United States produced over 90% of commercially usable helium in the world, while extraction plants in Canada, Poland, Russia, and other nations produced the remainder. In the mid-1990s, a new plant in Arzew, Algeria, producing 17 million cubic meters (600 million cubic feet) began operation, with enough production to cover all of Europe's demand. Meanwhile, by 2000, the consumption of helium within the U.S. had risen to above 15 million kg per year.[32] In 2004–2006, two additional plants, one in Ras Laffan, Qatar, and the other in Skikda, Algeria, were built. Algeria quickly became the second leading producer of helium.[33] Through this time, both helium consumption and the costs of producing helium increased.[34] In the 2002 to 2007 period helium prices doubled.[35]

As of 2012 the United States National Helium Reserve accounted for 30 percent of the world's helium.[36] The reserve was expected to run out of helium in 2018.[36] Despite that a proposed bill in the United States Senate would allow the reserve to continue to sell the gas. Other large reserves were in the Hugoton in Kansas, United States and nearby gas fields of Kansas and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma. New helium plants were scheduled to open in 2012 in Qatar, Russia and the United States state of Wyoming but they were not expected to ease the shortage.[36]

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helium
« Last Edit: May 08, 2013, 04:17:23 PM by shnozzola »
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Offline One Above All

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Re: Helium Shortage
« Reply #1 on: May 08, 2013, 04:17:02 PM »
Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe; how could there be a shortage? We just need to figure out space travel!
The truth is absolute. Life forms are specks of specks (...) of specks of dust in the universe.
Why settle for normal, when you can be so much more? Why settle for something, when you can have everything?
We choose our own gods.

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Offline Nick

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Re: Helium Shortage
« Reply #2 on: May 08, 2013, 05:23:14 PM »
I suppose now we will attack countries with helium.
Yo, put that in your pipe and smoke it.  Quit ragging on my Lord.

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Offline Azdgari

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Re: Helium Shortage
« Reply #3 on: May 08, 2013, 05:25:31 PM »
Helium in space could actually be a really useful descent tool.  Bring a giant deflated balloon into space, gather helium, and fill up the balloon with it, then use that to return to Earth slowly and safely.  Plus we could then use that helium.
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Offline hickdive

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Re: Helium Shortage
« Reply #4 on: May 08, 2013, 05:25:43 PM »
It is a worry. I sell the stuff as part of my business and I keep having to pass on the price increases to my customers. Pretty soon the expense will be prohibitive.
Stupidity, unlike intelligence, has no limits.

Offline Grogs

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Re: Helium Shortage
« Reply #5 on: May 12, 2013, 07:20:43 PM »
Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe; how could there be a shortage? We just need to figure out space travel!

The problem with helium is that it's chemically inert and doesn't form compounds, so it remains in gaseous form. Being lighter than air, it travels to the upper atmosphere, and it can actually achieve escape velocity and escape the Earth. We probably wouldn't have any at all today except that helium atoms are produced by the decay of heavy atoms like uranium. You're right that there's plenty of stuff in space. Gas giants like Jupiter have strong enough gravity that helium can't reach escape velocity, so there's a huge supply there that could be harvested. The price of recovering it would be <snerk> astronomical though.

A more specific case of the helium shortage is the shortage of the isotope helium-3. It's much, much less common than the helium-4 isotope, but it makes the best neutron detector we know of because of its properties. Unfortunately, since 9/11, the demand has skyrocketed, and the anticipated demand in the next 10 years is supposed to be something like 5 times the estimated supply world-wide. Every conference I've been to in the last 5 years has had a session or two on He-3 replacement technologies, or conservation strategies.

Offline LoriPinkAngel

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Re: Helium Shortage
« Reply #6 on: May 16, 2013, 04:32:21 PM »
I got a coupon for $3.00 off a Balloon Time Helium Tank with 50 Balloons at BJ's.    ;D
It doesn't make sense to let go of something you've had for so long.  But it also doesn't make sense to hold on when there's actually nothing there.

Offline HAL

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Re: Helium Shortage
« Reply #7 on: May 16, 2013, 06:55:30 PM »
Well crap - this means less and less people will be able to make their voices sound funny.  :(

Offline Tero

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Re: Helium Shortage
« Reply #8 on: May 16, 2013, 07:12:30 PM »
Big $$$ available for him who invents superconducting wire that works at liquid N2 instead of He. It's used in MRI machines.

Offline tapdancingcow

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Re: Helium Shortage
« Reply #9 on: May 17, 2013, 01:57:37 PM »
Like Nick mentioned we'll attack countries that have helium.  It will be called "Helium Wars" and the enemy with the most helium will flaunt their glut of the gas by having extravagant birthday parties with enormous balloons. 

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Offline One Above All

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Re: Helium Shortage
« Reply #10 on: May 17, 2013, 01:59:27 PM »
<snip>

I know. My name in Portuguese means "helium". It's called a "joke". An unfunny one, given your reaction.
The truth is absolute. Life forms are specks of specks (...) of specks of dust in the universe.
Why settle for normal, when you can be so much more? Why settle for something, when you can have everything?
We choose our own gods.

A.K.A.: Blaziken_rjcf/Lucifer/All In One.

Offline nogodsforme

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Re: Helium Shortage
« Reply #11 on: May 17, 2013, 04:33:42 PM »
<snip>

I know. My name in Portuguese means "helium". It's called a "joke". An unfunny one, given your reaction.

Depends. Are you inflatable?
Extraordinary claims of the bible don't even have ordinary evidence.

Kids aren't paying attention most of the time in science classes so it seems silly to get worked up over ID being taught in schools.

Offline One Above All

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Re: Helium Shortage
« Reply #12 on: May 17, 2013, 05:38:43 PM »
Depends. Are you inflatable?

Totally.
The truth is absolute. Life forms are specks of specks (...) of specks of dust in the universe.
Why settle for normal, when you can be so much more? Why settle for something, when you can have everything?
We choose our own gods.

A.K.A.: Blaziken_rjcf/Lucifer/All In One.

Offline nogodsforme

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Re: Helium Shortage
« Reply #13 on: May 17, 2013, 06:04:04 PM »
Depends. Are you inflatable?

Totally.
Completely totally or partly totally? :?
Extraordinary claims of the bible don't even have ordinary evidence.

Kids aren't paying attention most of the time in science classes so it seems silly to get worked up over ID being taught in schools.

Offline One Above All

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Re: Helium Shortage
« Reply #14 on: May 17, 2013, 06:15:48 PM »
Completely totally or partly totally? :?

Completely totally. I'm actually tied to a large weight at all times to prevent me from floating away.
The truth is absolute. Life forms are specks of specks (...) of specks of dust in the universe.
Why settle for normal, when you can be so much more? Why settle for something, when you can have everything?
We choose our own gods.

A.K.A.: Blaziken_rjcf/Lucifer/All In One.

Offline nogodsforme

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Re: Helium Shortage
« Reply #15 on: May 17, 2013, 07:48:45 PM »
Completely totally or partly totally? :?

Completely totally. I'm actually tied to a large weight at all times to prevent me from floating away.
Me too. I think it's called "the earth".  8)
Extraordinary claims of the bible don't even have ordinary evidence.

Kids aren't paying attention most of the time in science classes so it seems silly to get worked up over ID being taught in schools.