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Saturday, June 12, 2004

Sniffing for Peak Helium

I have been subscribed to the American Physical Society's FYI mailing list newsletter for probably over 10 years now. I faintly recall picking up info on potential helium depletion warnings from the FYI long ago.
Dr. Bob Park, 1995
At its 19 Nov 1995 meeting, the elected Council of the American Physical Society adopted a strongly worded statement calling for measures to "conserve and enhance the nation's helium reserves." The action was prompted by pending legislation that would require the nation's helium reserves to be sold off by 2015. In the rush to downsize government, the helium program has become a metaphor for "boondoggle" among politicians who associate it with blimps and party balloons. There is scant awareness of helium's growing cryogenic uses -- or its rapid depletion. It's a constituent of natural gas from a few "helium-rich" fields in the US. Less than half of the helium is needed to meet current demand; the rest is wasted. These fields are expected to be depleted in 20 years -- or about when the selloff of the federal reserve is completed.
Dr. Bob Park, 1998
The Helium Privatization Act of 1996 calls for the government to get out of the helium business (good idea) and sell off the reserve (really bad idea). However, an amendment added to the bill at the urging of the APS says the National Academy of Sciences must first study what the consequences would be. A panel headed by physicist John Reppy of Cornell is doing that right now. This week, they heard from researchers and the message was clear: Don't even think of selling the reserve -- enlarge it! Otherwise, helium depletion will remain completely independent of whether it's carefully husbanded or recklessly squandered -- it's extracted from natural gas, and the gas gets burned whether the helium is extracted or not. One researcher described helium as a "gift," without which modern science and technology would not have been possible. Does this generation have a right to waste it?

Implicit in this is the tie-in between natural gas reserves and helium reserves. Helium depletion issues act as a microcosm for the larger energy depletion issues.
Tracking the state of helium allows us to understand or at least filter the noise in different political terms. Face it, apart from party balloons and scuba divers, ordinary citizens don't come into contact with helium too often. Science remains the province of helium use. As an example, for NMR operators helium is their single biggest expense. As part of my past duties, I used to order helium to recharge cryopumps periodically, and wouldn't doubt the expense in other scientific applications.
"If you want technology to work miracles for you, you should at least listen to the tech people when they say something's important.".

The U.S.A. was once the leader for helium "production",
Rusia to Pump Helium
MOSCOW (Bloomberg) -- Rusia Petroleum, which is controlled by TNK-BP, plans to extract helium gas in eastern Siberia, Prime-Tass reported Tuesday, citing Rusia's general director Valery Pak.
Rusia plans to set up a venture with NPO Geliimash and Sayanskkhimplast to pump helium at the Kovykta gas field, developed by Rusia, Prime-Tass said. The partners will invest $40 million to extract seven billion cubic meters of helium gas per year.
Rusia, in which TNK-BP holds a 62.42 percent stake, is developing the field near the town of Irkutsk, which holds as much as 2 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, enough to supply Asia with gas for 10 years.
Kovykta holds a quarter of the world's helium reserves, the news service said.
The gas is used in manufacturing of high- technology equipment and is considered a strategic resource under Russian law. The partners plan to sell helium domestically and for exports.

The helium depletion debate has periodically resurfaced in the media over the years. The earlier reference was in regards to selling off the United States reserves in a few years. In 2001, Wired reported again, and got certain futurists excited by the potential for vast helium reserves on the moon, and even Uranus (no Homer jokes this time).

More recently, the Houston Geological Society featured a talk on challenges for 21st century helium extraction. Interestingly enough, the challenges look much the same as for oil. Look at this graph and notice how we have started to recently dip into the helium reserves (shades of the Kerry and Bush debating on using our oil reserves)

Apparently, recycling helium hasn't resulted in long term savings. As natural gas refiners collect helium only on demand, if we recycled more, they collected less.
Helium prices from one of the suppliers, BOC Gases, have increased 15%, 15-20%, and 10-15% in the years 2001, 2002, and 2003.

All you have to know about helium is that it is a slippery creature. The reason balloons filled up with helium don't last as long as air-filled balloons is that the small size of the He2 molecule allows it to escape through the tiniest openings (including the balloon material itself). It is actually so slippery that I as well as a host of other scientists know the trick of using helium in very small quantities along with a mass spectrometer to detect leaks in vacuum systems (aka helium sniffing).

Clearly, in a global context, any helium extracted along with natural gas that goes unused, escapes straight up and out of the atmosphere into the vacuum of outer space, never to be seen again, just like a child accidentally letting go of his balloon.


Professor Blogger Derek said...

Helium used to be used extensively in welding. TIG was originally all Helium (though they switched to Argon since its cheaper). Its still used in all the tri-gas mixes for MIG & TIG.

1:28 AM  
Professor Anonymous Anonymous said...

I work in an academic NMR lab and this issue isnt even on the radar. Everyone seems to think when asked that it will all be ok. I can see our academic speciality coming a very distant third after medical and manufacturing needs when the prices start spiraling up. Bingo...multi million dollar spectrometers become unusable and research stops.

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