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Huge helium discovery 'a life-saving find' (ox.ac.uk)
290 points by emilong on June 28, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 187 comments

On helium rarity: helium can easily be produced by nuclear reaction. That's expensive, of course. But if we raise the price of helium to prevent depletion of resources, helium will be expensive too.

Given we have a way to make it, we aren't going to run out of the stuff, so I just don't think this problem is that dire.

Helium can be easily retrieved from the atmosphere by fractional distillation. It leaks up into the atmosphere from the radioactive core of the Earth and forms naturally from solar radiation in the upper atmosphere, keeping atmospheric concentration high enough.

We get gasses like Argon and Neon the same way all the time. There is no helium crisis and there will never be a shortage in the next billion years.

The situation where Helium is much cheaper than Neon may end but there will always be plenty for industrial and science uses, even if balloons get more expensive.

What would it cost if extracted from air, considering only five parts per million are helium? The number I've seen is 10,000 times as much as currently.

Solar radiation producing helium in the upper atmosphere - how would you extract it from the upper atmosphere? I would have thought it doesn't mix with lower atmosphere due to atmospheric escape.

Combine it with CO2 extraction (you'll get CO2 anyway so you might as well do something good with it) and the money to do it might be there.

If we let the market price of helium go up (paired with the carbon credits), could CO2 extraction from the atmosphere become an economically feasible way of counteracting global warming?

I don't know the answer to that, but just wanted to mention you would want the market price to include the cost of storing the captured CO2.

EDIT: never mind. if anyone was buying this at market value, it doesn't make sense for the buyer to store it indefinitely.

How many tonnes of CO2 would you get per ton of He?

Market price for pure CO2 is only about $160 per ton. Market price of helium is like $45,000 per ton or something like that.

Serious question: how do you weigh something that is lighter than air?

I don't think you would actually weigh it. You would put it in a container, then measure the pressure and knowing the density of the gas and the volume of the container you can deduce the mass.

If you want to actually weigh using a scale, then put it in a container, measure the total mass accurately and then subtract the mass of the container and the buoyancy due to the atmospheric pressure gradient. The remainder is the mass of the gas.

Just put it into a gas cylinder (it doesn't even need to be compressed or anything).

ELI5 version: It might be lighter than air, but that just means that it will "float" ontop of heavier things - like oil ontop of water. But all those things still obviously have a certain weight. If you put it into a cylinder it will thus under the influence of gravity still weigh down onto it, which then can easily be measured.

If your cylinder is an airship, and you put that on a scale, you'll find that it has negative weight :)

I would think measuring the correct weight would be:

(weight of empty cylinder) + (weight of air volume that the cylinder could contain at atmospheric pressure) - (measured weight - positive or negative)

If you measured e.g. an empty cylinder, you'd end up with only the weight of air volume in cylinder at atmospheric pressure, which would be correct.

This is nearly correct. Rather than the weight of air volume the cylinder could contain, you want the weight of a volume of air equal in volume to the cylinder (including its walls) -- and you seem to have the wrong sign on the measured weight and the cylinder weight. Your equation says that the measured weight is equal to the buoyancy force, plus the weight of the cylinder, minus the weight of the helium, which would be weird.

(weight of helium) = (measured weight) + (buoyancy force, which is the weight of an equal volume of air at the appropriate pressure) - (weight of cylinder)

source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buoyancy

As I've written in another comment:

> That's because the weight of the gas cylinder is relative and you got the point of reference wrong: The base weight is when it's a vacuum inside the cylinder, because otherwise it doesn't even displace the air which you don't want to measure for your reference weight, making it appear heavier. Whatever you add inside the gas cylinder now will make it heavier and the difference you get is the weight of the gas.

Oh I understand, thanks! So like I can weigh a chicken breast sitting on top of a plate, because I know how much a plate weighs and I can just subtract it from the total weight.

Great explanation, thank you.

Suppose you have a 40 kg cylinder that you've filled with helium. The cylinder now weighs (g × 38kg) newtons. How much helium do you have in there?

The answer is obviously not "negative two kilograms", and it's not obvious to me that the answer is "two kilograms". After all, if we weighed the same cylinder in a vacuum rather than in the atmosphere, it would presumably be heavier, but the amount of helium inside wouldn't change.

I was told there would be no math.

> I can weigh a chicken breast sitting on top of a plate, because I know how much a plate weighs and I can just subtract it from the total weight.

Not only is this math, we know that it's incorrect for the problem under discussion. The fact that it follows "I understand, thanks!" does not fill me with confidence in the original explanation.

Are you implying that helium weighs nothing? That it's unaffected by gravity? What's actually going on is helium is lighter than air, so the pressure of the air around it pushes it up. Just because it rises at ground level does not mean it weighs nothing. I can jump, but when my feet are off the ground it does not mean gravity has stopped pulling me down, it just means I have moved upwards with enough force to overcome the effects of gravity. Eventually my upward momentum will slow enough for gravity to pull me back down. Same thing with helium, eventually it gets high enough that the neutral air molecules are sparse enough that it can float on top. It doesn't continue to rise past that point because gravity is still pulling it down.

So what is the weight (that is, what is the force of gravity pulling down the helium molecules without ambient air pushing it up) of helium? If you have a cylinder of a known weight, you can fill it with helium and subtract the weight of the cylinder. What's left is the weight of the helium. To measure this effect without air pressure pushing the helium up, you might need to do this in a vacuum, but the logic is there and I think my analogy fits. I weigh the chicken on a plate and subtract the plate to find the weight of the chicken.

What I was asking is "how do you weigh a gas without it spreading around and mixing with the air?" "Putting it in a cylinder" is the answer I was looking for.

> What I was asking is "how do you weigh a gas without it spreading around and mixing with the air?"

That's a rather different question than you actually asked, "how do you weigh something that is lighter than air?" You might notice that not a single response takes the perspective that what makes the problem difficult is that helium will spread out or mix with the atmosphere. Lots of gases (not to mention liquids!) are heavier than air while still being fluid; weighing them doesn't pose the same problems.

> Same thing with helium, eventually it gets high enough that the neutral air molecules are sparse enough that it can float on top. It doesn't continue to rise past that point because gravity is still pulling it down.

This isn't true at all. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atmospheric_escape

>You might notice that not a single response takes the perspective that what makes the problem difficult is that helium will spread out or mix with the atmosphere.

Well that's not true. The very first response, the one that started this conversation, did exactly that. "Put it in a cylinder". Boom, done. That's why I said "good answer". That's the answer to the question I had asked. You can weigh hexafluoride by putting it in a bowl because it is so dense it will not float away. Helium is the opposite. That's what I wanted to know. Because obviously helium will just float away.

This is a complicated question obviously, and goes deeper than what I asked. But you and I are asking two different questions, and for some reason you seem hell bent on just shitting on everyone else's answers with poor science and snark instead of a simple Google search that takes like 5 seconds and gives you literally all the answers you could ever want.

> Earth is too large to lose a significant proportion of its atmosphere through Jeans escape. The current rate of loss is about three kilograms (3 kg) of hydrogen and 50 grams (50 g) of helium per second.

Seems true to the tune of whatever exists minus 50 grams per second.

Earth is too large to lose a significant portion of its atmosphere. It can (and does!) easily lose a significant portion of its helium.

50g of helium per second would exhaust the current level of helium in the atmosphere in about 2.3 million years. (Atmospheric total mass 5.15e18 kg from wikipedia, composition of the atmosphere by volume from http://eesc.columbia.edu/courses/ees/slides/climate/table_1.... .) That may sound like a long time, but consider that the earth is 4500 million years old.

Maybe I'm not understanding your proposal with the cylinder, but IIRC, it takes about a cubic foot of helium at standard temperature and pressure to lift an ounce. Let's call it 3.5 cubic meters per kilogram in Euros. That means your cylinder has an inner volume of 7 cubic meters, which is silly, so it sounds like you're talking about a normal sized cylinder with compressed helium in it, which is heavier than air and which you'll be able to weigh on a scale just like anything else. (More or less.)

Those numbers were made up to illustrate a point. I have no idea how buoyant helium is at STP and didn't intend to conform to any realistic scenario. "7 cubic meters at STP" is a perfectly fine empirical answer, and I guess you can get the mass of 7 cubic meters of helium from the ideal gas law.

The point is, it makes no sense to say "the weight of the helium must be equal to the weight of the helium+cylinder system minus the known weight of the cylinder, just as the weight of a chicken on a plate is equal to the weight of the chicken+plate system minus the weight of the plate". You've got to bring in some extra information.

What's the mechanism? It can't just be separation from the atmosphere -- if you fill a balloon with helium, it will get lighter, not heavier. Same thing if you fill a cylinder that sinks in water (perhaps because it was already full of water) with atmospheric air; it may well start to float.

Suppose you have a balance scale with a "cylinder" full of air on one side. You pump out the air and put in helium. What happens to the scale?

That's because the weight of the gas cylinder is relative and you got the point of reference wrong: The base weight is when it's a vacuum inside the cylinder, because otherwise it doesn't even displace the air which you don't want to measure for your reference weight, making it appear heavier. Whatever you add inside the gas cylinder now will make it heavier and the difference you get is the weight of the gas.

While I appreciate the answer, it's not a great explanation of the balloon example, since a balloon starts out effectively containing nothing. The problem there is that as you add helium, the volume of the balloon increases.

I'm a little more comfortable with saying we do some weighings in a vacuum (say, to determine the density of air at a given pressure) than with saying we'll start with a cylinder that contains a vacuum. For example, our 40kg cylinder, when airtight and containing vacuum, will weigh less than a 40kg object should, and I think that muddles the example.

Only the difference between vacuum cylinder and helium cylinder matters. (Since the buoyancy in air only depends on the volume of the cylinder, not what's inside.)

An empty cylinder should measure exactly as much lighter than the air as the air weighs. That point is your zero point.

Put in helium and you'll eventually reach and exceed the parity point as you keep filling up (same weight as the air), and the ratio of how much it moves for x volume of additional filled gas tells got the additional weight.

Soon enough you'll reach 2x air weight and you'll have tipped the scale exactly.

Aren't you confusing buoyancy and weight?

What's weight? Mass is well-defined; you could call weight "the force of gravitational attraction between the object and the earth" or you could call it "the force acting upon the object, when at rest". Since we're talking about measuring weight, I was using the second one, which is easy to measure directly.

Granted, I was also using the first sense when talking about the weight of the helium specifically. I guess in that sense my terminology could have been better.

Can you actually extract a significant amount of Helium from atmospheric air? I was under the impression that it was far more likely to escape into space because it's so much lighter than the other gasses in our atmosphere.

Losses to space is the reason we have relatively so little but in absolute terms that's still a huge amount. Helium makes up 5 millionths of the atmosphere.

EDIT: Thanks for the correction.

One half-millionth is 2 ppm. Half of one-millionth is 0.5 ppm. Wikipedia says the concentration is 5.2 ppm.

Helium in the atmosphere could not be depleted but its' extraction is still expensive while a rig where you can extract it from the rocks might be cheaper. It's all about extraction and processing engineering, let's see what would happen in the next few years. I remember about the soviets that were drilling in the Kola peninsula and the mud they get from it literally boiled hydrogen and helium, but that was too expensive.

> Helium can be easily retrieved from the atmosphere by fractional distillation

Technologically, yes... But the last time I looked into this it is extremely costly in terms of energy (ratio of megawatt-hours consumed by equipment vs. the amount of helium you can compress into tanks). Not very dissimilar from saying "Hydrogen can be easily retrieved from sea water". Yes, it can, it just takes an immense amount of electricity to run the electrolysis process. So unless you are located next to a $100 million photovoltaic plant covering a large section of desert, or are located somewhere else that electricity is incredibly cheap (hydroelectric plants on the Columbia river), it's questionable if the economics work out.

Although, you'll constantly hear from proponents of nuclear energy, that a nuclear plant can product "nigh-limitless" (!) amounts of electricity, somehow they never do.

But supposing they did produce the absurd amount of energy they could potentially create, would a purpose-built nuclear powered hydrogen plant be capable of obviating any hydrogen deficit, and eventually create a surplus? And then, so too, with helium, via a separate process?

Uses like this are perfectly suited for PV or wind. You run your Hydrogen or helium (or desalination) plant when there is generation and stop when there is none.

No way. No way.

PV and wind are perfectly suited toward essentials because they are sources of energy we'll never feel guilty about. We should use and perfect methods of energy extraction that are conscionable, so that we have ideals methods of providing for ourselves.

Meanwhile, to produce surpluses, and exploit gains for experimental luxuries, use riskier methods. This balances the premise of the risk, such that you don't push the risk taking too far, out of desperation for a necessity. Rather than worry about a power failure at a hospital, accept a negligible decline against production targets at a plant, and temporarily shut down the pile, for safety's sake, whenever needed. No?

Hydrogen is great for rockets. Helium is great for MRI machines and water is great for agriculture, which is a great way to use all the CO2 we dump into the atmosphere. Absolutely safe and stable sources (nuclear, hydro, hydrogen/gas/coal thermo) are great for hospitals.

Most helium is used for neither industry nor science, but for personal medicine. That is why the article describes this find as life-saving.

Plus, like the article mentions, it's often found in natural gas fields. However, we just vent that helium into the atmosphere because it's not profitable to separate and collect it.

Right. Most He comes from fractional distillation of natural gas. Some natural gas pockets have up to 7% He. This is where cheap He comes from. Most natural gas pockets have a lower concentration, but they will always be more economical sources of He than the atmosphere or nuclear fusion. The "peak He" prediction has the same flaw as the "peak oil" prediction. Helium may get more expensive, but we will not in any sense "run out."

Yep. There will always be enough helium for MRI equipment. But at some point there won't be enough to fill balloons at your kid's birthday party unless you're very wealthy.

Or just use hydrogen.

1) Mixes of hydrogen and oxygen are highly explosive 2) Hydrogen tends to leak with ease even from metal containers (hydrogen molecules are the smallest). 3) There is a tradition to use lighted candles at birthday parties. 1 + 2 + 3 makes for a disturbing (although admittedly fun) combination.


Doesn't seem to be too much of a risk, judging by the videos. (Not more than giving kids knifes to cut their steaks. Or letting them carve wood.)

PS Thanks for the video!

That doesn't mean that the price can't skyrocket until it's nearly as bad as if it had literally run out, though. I don't know what the actual forecasts are at the moment, but it's certainly possible to imagine a world where an MRI costs so much that affordable insurance won't cover it, or where oil costs so much that most people can't afford cars, and the price of goods shipped by combustion engine rises ruinously.

> helium can easily be produced by nuclear reaction

I think you may need to rethink your use of the word "easily" there.

There are some good comments here, which explain why satisfying current demand for helium via fusion is nowhere near practical: https://www.reddit.com/r/askscience/comments/12r2s7/helium_i...

Helium is also a product of nuclear decay/fission.

That's how we got the big stockpiles in the first place.

Helium is produced naturally in any radio isotope that undergoes alpha decay.

>> Helium is produced naturally in any radio isotope that undergoes alpha decay.

Why not call it helium decay, since alpha particles are just helium nuclei? Or is this a case of "alpha particles" being named that before we knew what they are?


Beta decay is positrons, and gamma radiation is just light. Hence why we call the energetic end of the spectrum "gamma rays".

Beta decay is electrons.

Because He nuclei are not the same as He atoms since they are not electrically neutral. Also, they generally have higher energy after being released from the larger Uranium or other atomic nucleus which causes them to behave differently from an He nucleus that wasn't released as an alpha particle. This all is important in terms of tracking what happens to subsequent decay reactions.


Alpha Decay is just a low mass form of cluster decay.

No the big stockpile was paid for by cold war stockpiling, and it's cheap now because congress has mandated a sale of a huge quantity with no floor price consideration for that cost.

What is this congress that imposes Helium prices worldwide?

US Congress decided to sell off the US stockpile. Since they're selling lower than anyone else can produce, they're basically the only source. Therefore, they are the global supply and they are setting worldwide prices.

Grandparent comment means the US Congress, which does legislation.

Yes that stockpile we got was mainly from US and later Russian cold era nuclear weapon production and research.

What's your point exactly?

That's untrue. The stockpile comes from gas fields -- helium is mixed in with some natural gas deposits, and can be extracted from it.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helium_production_in_the_Unite...

That's incorrect, you are confusing between Helium-4 and Helium-3.

The main source for Helium-3 which is the one we are in shortage of was and is the US nuclear weapons program primarily through the decay of tritium.



As near as I can tell, you are the only one discussing helium-3 and its shortage. Maybe everyone should be talking about helium-3, but unfortunately they are not. Suggestions?

No, there is actually a global shortage of Helium-4 as well.

The Strategic Helium Reserve is a consequence of WWI and the desire to not be subject to shortages of Helium for lighter-than-air craft during wartime.


The strategic reserve is for Helium 4 primarily, were talking about Helium 3 which is a rare isotope of Helium.

Without knowing how the rate of production compares to the rate of depletion, this is meaningless. Oil is continuously produced by decaying life interacting with geological processes, but that doesn't matter when it's being used many orders of magnitude faster than that happens.

The main source for Helium 3 was an is the US nuclear weapons program, primarily the stockpiles of Tritium which produces 8000-10000 liters of Helium 3 each year.

The increased demand post 9/11 primarily by the federal government (He3 is used in neutron detectors) combined the reduction of the US weapons program caused a shortage.

Here is the FAS report from 2010, it's not the only report on the matter but it is very detailed. https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41419.pdf

Yeah, but Helium 3 is a totally different beast with different uses. Helium 4 is far more abundant and that's the one people are using to fill balloons and cool MRIs and purge lines and all the rest.

I think we're talking about alpha decay gaining a few electrons here, not fusion.

Are you thinking of alpha decay?


I'm not sure there is any conceivable way to use that in manufacturing helium gas at an industrial scale.

Even if the entire world switched over to fusion power and efficiently recovered Helium from it that still wouldn't meet worldwide Helium demand.

High temperature superconduction would solve the MR need. Link to a novel and smelly bit of super conduction.

But if we raise the price of helium to prevent depletion of resources, helium will be expensive too.

Although artificially raising the price of diamonds seems to have been an effective strategy for the diamond industry, that is in part because they found a marketing angle where the high price of a diamond engagement ring is a strong emotional signal between a prospective couple. In most markets, people simply are not going to pay more for something than it benefits them. Raising the price can have the consequence of pushing people to go look for other alternatives.

Price has to be reflective to some degree of underlying value or benefit. Further, if creating helium comes at the cost of destroying more real value than it creates, this is simply a lose-lose prospect across the board, regardless of the price tag you can attach to helium.

I don't think synthesizing alpha-decaying nuclei would be practical. Neither would be refining them into higher concentrations. Plus it wouldn't stop the He-3 shortage.

"The best cure for high prices is high prices."

I always assumed the floating robots in Fallout used super-strong Nuclear Helium to keep afloat.

> can easily be produced by nuclear reaction

> That's expensive, of course

You need to pick one.

Given the scarcity of this stuff, we really need to be looking at this in terms of centuries and maybe tight controls are still a good idea.

Nah fam. I need my balloons. /s

But really, how do we deal with a public who feels that they are entitled the stuff, and companies willing to sell it to them because it's more profitable?

The thing is if this is so rare and so precious, why is it cheap enough to put in balloon.

Now obviously I get that it is not currently rare, but that once it gets rare that's going to be a big issue.

But there are people whose job is to prepare for the next 100 years. Those are governments. Shouldn't they just buy the whole lot of it while it is cheap, that's good use of public money if you know your country is going to need the stuff. The newfound scarcity should push the price of helium outside of regular human entertainment budget.

In the United States, we've had the National Helium Reserve since the 1960's. Unfortunately, the decision was made in 1996 to privatize the reserves, starting in the mid-2000's. That's much of the reason for the scarcity we face now.

The year is 2800; An alien spacecraft lands to survey the blasted and ashen ruin that was once home to over 7 billion sentient beings. The mission commander, with infinite sadness, reports their findings to his superiors: "They let the market decide".

But because of the helium, they presumably say it in a very high pitched voice.

Meanwhile, from Alpha Centauri, Tau Ceti, and Barnard's Star, the expeditionary fleets of the First Great and Bounteous Human Empire set forth once more to conquer.

(Hey, it's not any more or less plausible than what you said.)

Predicting the consumption of a scarce resource is extremely plausible, and there are many historical precedents. Predicting that interstellar travel will ever be in any way economically advantageous is probably unphysical. With travel time for messages taking decades and travel taking centuries, your "Human Empire" would be more along the lines of "Human-descended collection of exceptionally bad pen-pals". The speed of light and the tyrannies of the rocket equation don't really allow for anything else.

> Predicting that interstellar travel will ever be in any way economically advantageous is probably unphysical.

What's sauce for the sad alien is sauce for the human empire, say I.

Can you give me some of those historical precedents? They must have happened in a market society, otherwise its not valid as a comparison.

For most resources it seem that they dont run out and the prices dont skyrocket in the apocalyptical. I have seen books from pre-1900 that were warning of the eminent "peak coal".

Their is an issue if their are no useful property rights like you can see in whales and you race to the bottum.

I would cite any animal driven to extinction by a commercial market. If we agree that the criterion is where the good is no longer marketable, we can examine e.g. the markets for beaver or sea otter furs, the cod fisheries of the Grand Banks, and arguably the Tasmanian tiger. It's also not hard to find examples of mine or oil well exhaustion, which demonstrates the principle. I'm not going to insist that it's a common or inevitable phenomenon, my contention is merely that, as you say, there are circumstances which can promote it. Often these are market failures like a fixed price for a commodity, but perfect competition being something of a rarity, market failures abound. Either way, it's far more plausible, however unlikely, than interstellar trade or interstellar empires.

They ascend through the dark sky, breaking through the balloon layer that blocked out the sun. "I wonder what these glyphs mean," mutters the navigator, as he steers his ship around the formation of mylar Happy Birthday balloons.

Sad thing is, those balloons pop when they get too high. The density of air decreases, allowing the helium to push outward and pop the balloon. Had we made stronger balloons, we might have been able to just float up and collect them when we run out of light gases... Oh wait, that requires a balloon.

7 billion? We're going to be close to 11 billion by the end of the century. That's a lot more birthday parties, graduations, etc.

Don't forget the other effect on sea life when they're released near water:


I believe the implication is we are less than '5 minutes to midnight'

> We're going to be close to 11 billion by the end of the century.

Aren't you the optimist.

The real problem was the decision in 96 to fix the price artificially low, which discouraged both conservation and new entrants in the market.

What do you mean by 'fix'? Who set it? I understand the US privatized its reserve, but I don't understand how the market seems so out-of-step with reality. What about other markets? EU, SE Asia - are they seeing the same low prices?

It's a global market. When the US decided to sell off the Strategic Helium Reserve, it pushed the price of helium below the cost of extraction.

The US fixed its price below the cost to extract it for anyone, which has effectively kept the market there until their supply runs out.

I wonder why someone doesn't just buy the lot from them at their low prices, and scalps it?

Well, [1] says they sold it at 3.43 USD per m^3 to non-government customers in 2014, and if they have over a billion m^3, it would require over 3.43 billion USD to accomplish.

In addition to that, they'd then need to have a helium storage facility that could accommodate such an enormous reserve, the construction and maintenance of which might eat all of the profit from resale which might ensue.

All of this presuming the government would sell a sole bidder their entire reserve in one fell swoop.

[1] - http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/helium/mcs-...

You could still make money at a larger scale (given a cheap enough storage facility): buy helium now, sell when more expensive. You'd have to wait. If you could buy the whole lot now, you could make the profit straight away.

If storing the helium plus interest rates actually costs more than the expected price increase over time warrants----then the US government _should_ sell off the reserve now, and the whole thing about them selling too cheaply is nonsense.

Though it might be that the US government can store helium cheaper than anyone else. In that case, perhaps they should sell the helium with the storage facilities? After all, what good are the storage facilities to them, when they've sold all the helium?

> The thing is if this is so rare and so precious, why is it cheap enough to put in balloon.

The price is literally held down by law (at least in the United States). Because people need to have their birthday balloons. Which is stupid as hell.

> Because people need to have their birthday balloons.

It's in the Bible...

wait, seriously? or joking?

Joking, of course. Kind of a reference to gun control jokes.

Who are these people whose job it is to prepare for the next 100 years, and where do they work?

I really think there should be such people, but I didn't think there really were any.

The US helium reserve which supplies most of world helium was ordered to liquidate & shut down by 2010, so it is being sold way below cost.

Yes, but hydrogen balloons add a whole extra dimension of fun and excitement. Inert gasses are boring.

Hydrogen would be fine as a party balloon gas, but it's surprisingly hard to store and transport in its elemental form. (Which also makes it a pretty terrible vehicle fuel.) Much of the time you're better off generating the hydrogen at the point of consumption, which isn't practical for someone selling balloons from a pushcart or a grocery-store kiosk.

Fun, excitement, and humanity. Never forget the humanity.

Is hydrogen really that dangerous in small quantities? The Hindenburg had seven million cubic feet of the stuff, and half the passengers still survived.

We tested this in science class -- a balloon sized quantity of hydrogen makes a very forceful explosion. Safe enough to be used in the middle of a classroom but not something you'd want small children carrying around.

Sure, it makes a "very forceful explosion" when confined. It's not the same scenario, though.

The context of this discussion was "hydrogen balloons" so that is the same scenario literally.

You put it in balloons in science class, and not in a test tube?

Yup. Chemical reaction to create hydrogen and had it fill a balloon over lunch. One of the other students got to explode it with a match taped to a meter stick. I could feel the air rushing by when it exploded. It was also quite loud but no big fire ball or anything.

Your high school was way better than mine.

Strong property rights that can be counted on to be respected over long timescales, and an efficient futures market. But step number one is accepting that for sufficient interest rates and sufficiently long times, the efficient outcome is not necessarily conservation.

Thinking that such a level of market efficiency is attainable is utopian thinking. There will always be enough short-sighted people to thwart this.

Also, why should we accept that?

> Also, why should we accept that?

Because at least entertaining that outcome is the only rational thing to do if you believe in attaching values to things and doing math on them?

Right now people forecast about a 4% real (inflation-adjusted) rate of return on long-term investments. If the helium isn't going to be worth ~5 times as much 100 years from now, then it's more valuable to the world at large if we use it now than to wait 100 years, and we can make up the difference later.

If you've got good reasons to attach particular values to the helium in 100 years, or the helium now, or the value of anything else investable in 100 years, then by all means do share, and tell us why everyone else in the market has it wrong (externalities the market participants are inflicting on others, perhaps? that's the classic reason). Then we can look at the math, and challenge each others' assumptions, like rational people in a rational argument. Otherwise, you're just attaching an irrational, spiritual value to the idea of conservation itself, and indicting everyone who doesn't share these values as heretics. While this may be a useful heuristic, it isn't always the best way to discuss a matter.

He asked why we should accept that and you explained why he should entertain it. So you didn't really answer his question. There's a big difference between accepting and entertaining.

> If you've got good reasons to attach particular values to the helium in 100 years, or the helium now, or the value of anything else investable in 100 years, then by all means do share, and tell us why everyone else in the market has it wrong

Of course the market today is wrong about the value of things 100 years from now. If it were possible to predict the value of things 100 years from now, we would not need a market to allocate resources.

Markets beat central planning not because they are superior at predicting the future, but because they are superior at adapting to the surprising future as it arrives.

Markets are quite bad at predicting the future. Market prices capture today's collective thinking about the future, but that's not the same thing as actually predicting the future--and sometimes it is the opposite, as in a bubble.

Markets walk randomly to price things, but there might be no-return boundaries lurking in our future. If we run out of helium, it doesn't matter if the market corrects to a proper scarcity valuation. Raising the price of something does not physically create more of it.

It's interesting, and a certain rabbit hole of logic.

* The person around 100 years in the future is likely dead, so any utility is gained from using it before they die.

* Perfect capital markets which price in the future, for example, financial intermediaries paying you to work rather than the employer itself, ceteris paribus more efficient than current compensation schemes, on the condition you get paid 100% of the payroll if becomming CEO and pay back the bank, do not exist.

* Tragedy of the Commons - gain political/property rights to an unequal share of common property, then profit from this 'capital' right.

* Or an example close to my home, of a port and railway constructed on Tsar bonds with maturities of 100+ years which spurred the development, and chaos, in Northeast China, and turned pretty worthless with revolution and occupation. At the time, one of the most certain investments in the world.

What is 'value'? In the short term dictionary definition it is the price someone is willing to pay. Perhaps a tulip, or a cotton, or fur, jacket - the 'value' of these has varied far more than discount factors could determine. Much debate has gone into this for millennia.

We simply don't know the future. In retrospect, the long term return on capital is the long tern discount factor. But we do know it isn't priced-in efficiently, as we know we don't know what the future will be. Future value is a dependent variable. Though I am a fan of long term trends for short term things, outside of a couple of centuries, long term trends tend to fail, and 'this time it's different' even if drawn over the past half century doesn't work unless not a lot else is changing.

At the other direction, there is the energy case, where our current "overspending" of fossil fuels is subsidizing the solar power evolution that will probably make (Earth bounded) energy sustainable for once.

We simply don't know the future. That's valid for both directions.

You know, blithely proposing government solutions to this problem needs to address the fact that it's a government that has created this problem in the first place, keeping the price at below market price for very long periods of time.

I'm not necessarily going to claim the market will perfectly allocate this (for one thing there's a lot of moral decisions and time preferences tied up into one's belief about what perfect allocation is), but just waving government at the problem won't fix it either, because that's what we have now. That's the problem. If that was the solution, we wouldn't be talking about this, because it wouldn't be a problem.

However ignorant you may think it is to just wave "market" at the problem, at least it would be a change and might have a different result.

> it's a government that has created this problem in the first place, keeping the price at below market price

Okay, there's a data point I missed. The price should be appropriate, and in this case too high is better than too low. I agree in general that when the market can do something, it should. However, I don't think the market is capable of seeing into the far future (see petrol prices, which are way too low in the US and only more-or-less appropriate in Europe due to taxes).

The market is not capable of seeing into the far future, because nothing is capable of seeing into the far future.

This is not mere wordplay. It's a vital component to understanding how the world works.

After all, remember what article this is that we're commenting on; a discovery of a potentially new significant source of helium. After you've fiddled with the market because you know it's making helium too cheap, how are you going to feel after something like this comes up five years later, having made medical treatments and other such things more expensive only for it to turn out that your sure and certain knowledge of the situation was wrong?

The "time value of money" is actually directly related to the fact that uncertainty compounds exponentially. Future money is worth less because you're that much less certain that you'll even have the money, or what you can spend it on. But the point about uncertainty goes beyond just money. There's a reason why "five year plan" is a joke for people educated in history.

True, true. You could have concluded from my previous comment that I'm not a fan of five-year plans. The market still functions in Europe.

Nevertheless, I hold to the precautionary principle in environmental issues. If such a helium source were never found, we'd be in some trouble. (We've lived for millennia without using helium, so we'll manage, but there are probably several things we can't do at all without it.) Now we know that there are likely more sources, we can relax and maybe leave it to the market.

This is similar to, although not as bad as, how we haven't been able to prevent global warming; there may be a point at which no amount of money or work is going to fix that. Governments may not be much better at preventing things like that, but at least they have a chance.

I think the different between your example is that the stratosphere has no system of property rights, so their simly is no market.

Helium is different, their is no clear market failure of any kind. As government provided helium will start to run out, future prices will rise. Potential gain from increasing production will raise as well. When prices rise many people will move to alternatives softening the rise in price.

Once the prices are higher, their will be a huge insentive to figure out a way to produce it economically.

The equillibrium price will probebly be higher then now, but currently we are living in an artefical low, so setting the goal of continuing this current low price is simply unrealistic even if government manages it, to keep the price this low they would have to subsidise it eventually and I don't think that is a worthwhile thibg for governemnt.

> Thinking that such a level of market efficiency is attainable is utopian thinking. There will always be enough short-sighted people to thwart this.

This mechanism has a tremendously better track record than the other ones proposed in this thread. No mechanism are perfect, but we should try to improve the working mechanism rather than use the broken one. And there don't seem to be any fundamental barriers in the way.

> Also, why should we accept that?

For the same reason we should accept other Pareto improvements: if you're doing otherwise, you're letting value go to waste.

We have the means already: government controls on their stockpiles, and different tariffs for different uses of the gas.

Seriously, I don't understand how strongly people seem feel about balloons. To hear some tell it, they are just as much a fundamental human right as clean water and sanitation.

There are two types of helium. Helium 4 is useless except for balloons. It's cheap and there's a big supply. Helium 3 is just 0,000137% of the total, is important for science or stuff, and this is not sold for balloons.

I think this is wrong. Helium 3 is indeed needed for dilution refrigeration, which is a quite advanced cooling method. I believe it is mostly only used in laboratories.


However, regular helium (whether truly pure helium 4 or the naturally occurring mixture which is 99.9998% helium 4) is still an extraordinarily useful cryogenic liquid for less advanced cooling, having nothing to do with dilution fridges, in a wide range of scientific and industrial contexts. It also has other niche uses like arc welding, inert gas environment, helium-neon lasers, etc.


That's incorrect, Helium 3 is what is used for most applications and it's what we are in near dire shortage off.


Your link just describes a few other industrial uses for helium 3 besides dilution fridges, mostly having to do with neutron absorption and nuclear polarizability (which aren't exactly household needs). This is a good contribution to this conversation, but it doesn't shows at all that helium 3 is "what is used for most applications". For the vast majority of industrial and scientific usage of helium, helium 3 does not offer much advantage.

He 4 is usually used for He cooling, which goes down to roughly 4 K. With He 3 you can get a little bit lower, and He 3 has some properties which makes it more useful at even lower temperatures, but the usual cooling is done with He 4, which is not exactly cheap. (I was once told that liquid Nitrogen is about the price of cola and liquid Helium the price of Whiskey, at least in a very rough sense.)

Hello, I feel compelled to clarify some misleading comments here. I'm speaking as a former experimental physicist who routinely used liquid helium for cryogenic research.

Firstly - BOTH isotopes of helium are important. Both are relatively rare, though He3 is much rarer. Both are needed for cryogenic research, though for MRI's He4 is generally sufficient (used for cooling the magnets, though a specialised lung imaging technique can use some He3). Both are byproducts of natural gas formation, and both will eventually escape Earth if released to atmosphere. (At earth surface temperasure these particles are so light that a significant fraction of the Maxwell Boltzmann velocity distribution is above escape velocity). Though I'm not sure what macroscopic time scale atmospheric helium will escape at.

He4 evaporation temp is 4.2K so cooling down to that level is quite easy, just get a dewar of liquid He4 and dunk something into it.

Realistically it's more complicated, you use carefully designed vacuum dewars with super insulation and usually a liquid nitrogen shroud (at 77K) to reduce heat transfer by radiation (which scales as T^4, meaning the LN2 shroud is roughly 1/4th room temp, and reduces radiative transfer by 250 times). You have carefully designed "dunker stick" with wires and frame carefully chosen to minimise heat transfer.

Secondly, you can cool LHe4 a bit further to about 1K by evaporating the surface of the dewar. This evaporative cooling basically pumps away the more energetic gas particles in the upper tail of the velocity distribution, leaving the slower and cooler ones. This works but is very inefficient and would pump away most of your helium. To be more efficient you can use a "1K pot" to pump and cool only a small volume.

Interesting things happen when you cool below the lambda point at 2.2K at which point the LHe4 becomes a superfluid. The pump noticeably gets quieter. Superfluous are cool but can also be a nuisance for cooling because they creep around and can form thermal bridges connecting parts of your system you wanted isolated and prevent further cooling.

At this point you can get colder by using the MUCH rarer form of helium, He3 which has a lower boiling temp. You can evaporatively pump LHe3 and get down to about 200 mK. Since this isotope is so rare it's usually done in a tightly controlled closed fork system, the 'pump' can be a sealed can of activated charcoal IIRC.

Things start getting interesting when you want to go colder. A mixture of both LHe3 and LHe4 becomes unstable in the right temp/pressure region and wants to form two distinct phases : a He3 rich and He3 dilute phase. A dilution refrigerator is a clever apparatus that uses hear two phases to run a closed-cycle refrigerator very much conceptually like your kitchen refrigerator. Evaporate He3 out of the rich phase, which cools, transfer heat away, compress back into the rich phase. A dilution refrigerator can get down to about 10 mK, maybe lower for ideal conditions. Though it's a beast. Can take all day to old and cool a sample, takes up half a room and just cools down a sample not much bigger than your thumb. Has several loud heavy vacuum pumps and huge dewar of LHe4, carefully controlled "mash" of He3/He4, etc.

He3 can also form a superfluid at low enough temperature, and is interesting because in this case it's like Type I superconductivity where two fermions pair up and form a boson carrier. He4 atoms are bosons already but He3 are fermions.

Fantastic reply, thank you for this.

What makes it useless/helium 3 useful?

It can achieve superfluidity. With an appropriate ratio of Helium-4, is used in diffusion refrigerators to a fraction of a Kelvin above absolute zero.

> how do we deal with a public who feels that they are entitled the stuff

We increase the price. By taxing it for example. Capitalism deals with the rest.


Sounds like it isn't so much scarce as we use so little of it compared to what has been historically available that no one has bothered to seriously spend time exploring for it until now.

We can always find some more near the top of our atmosphere :)

As it turns out, helium (and hydrogen) will escape Earth's atmosphere, so there's not a whole lot up there either.

Here's a great Quora post on the escape process: https://www.quora.com/What-makes-hydrogen-and-helium-and-ato...

> Now, a research group [...] has developed a brand new exploration approach. The first use of this method has resulted in the discovery of a world-class helium gas field in Tanzania.

Hm... One try, one hit. Maybe it's not that rare after all?

  Helium [...] is critical to [...] MRI scanner
Is that still the case, now that high-temperature superconductors are available, which work just fine while being cooled with much cheaper liquid nitrogen instead of requiring liquid helium?

It’s not as simple as that. Wikipedia says:

Some cuprates have an upper critical field of about 100 tesla. However, cuprate materials are brittle ceramics which are expensive to manufacture and not easily turned into wires or other useful shapes. Also, high-temperature superconductors do not form large, continuous superconducting domains, but only clusters of microdomains within which superconducting occurs. They are therefore unsuitable for applications requiring actual superconducted currents, such as magnets for magnetic resonance spectrometers.

IOW, we don’t have a high temperature superconducting material that’s suitable for use in an MRI scanner yet.

It seems there is High temperature superconducting wire entering the market:


That's still just cuprate superconductors except flattened inside of a metal tube. It's still expensive, inflexible, and for reasons to do with the SC physics, behave differently than the kind of Type 1 superconductors needed for MRIs and NMRs (high temperature superconductors are Type 2 and are a drastically different phenomenon).

>we don’t have a high temperature superconducting material that’s suitable for use in an MRI scanner yet.

But I think we are getting closer all the time... http://www.superpower-inc.com/content/high-field-magnets

There are Type 1 superconductors (the first that were discovered), and those have the magnetic properties that are more useful creating MRI type fields. There have been breakthroughs in Type 1 superconductors and I believe GE is making an MRI using Hydrogen at 20 Kelvin for the cryogen. Although I couldn't find much more than this patent in a quick search:


...and then there are Type 2 superconductors, of with the High Temperature (HTS) variety have been popular. There have been steady advancements in those materials, and someday there will be an MRI machine based on HTS materials. See the link to SuperPower below as well.

Do you know what is even cheaper than using Helium? Using cryogen free magnets: http://www.mrsolutions.com/news-events/news-item/mr-solution...

Also: http://www.oxford-instruments.com/products/cryogenic-environ...

I can only guess that the price of replacing an MRI scanner is more than the expected difference in operating cost of nitrogen vs helium. Everything I know about MRI suggests that the machine itself is fairly pricy.

Not at all. MRI machines have huge start up costs but that doesn't mean they cost any less to run because making and storing liquid helium is orders of magnitude more expensive than liquid nitrogen. According to [1], for a new MRI from the manufacturer, it costs about $2 million for startup costs (capex and training) and another $2.5 million over the next 5 years for operating costs. Considering these things easily last 20-30 or more years the lifetime cost of an MRI will be an order of magnitude greater than the acquisition cost. Don't know how accurate this document is but it fits my experience of about $1 mil start up with $0.5-1 million per year operating costs.

[1] http://proimagingservices.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/How...

Just to add to this good comment. MR scanners are generally (here in New Zealand) considered to have a lifetime of 10 years. Some scanners use liquid nitrogen and liquid helium for cooling. The use of compressors to reuse the helium that boils off has dropped helium use dramatically, meaning refills are now uncommon and occur every year or two.

I have a higher up comment but cryogen free magnets exist now. They still need water and electricity but much cheaper than the cost of helium (ant the cost of the nitrogen around the helium).

Most of the MRI machines in existence use Helium, and they're expensive machines, unlikely to be replaced until they must be.

If helium is so important and rare why do we put it in balloons?

The market has been distorted since ~1996 by the federal decision to sell off the National Helium Reserve.

That said, the "we're running out of helium" scare stories are misleading. The reason no one has looked for it directly (instead of as a side product to natural gas) is that it's been too cheap to make that profitable. Medical helium is an inelastic good, so discovery will increase as prices rise.

Like the difference between "proven reserves" and the amount of oil actually in the ground, we are "running out" of helium only for the discovered-and-exploited version of helium.

There is lots of it now, so the market price is low. The reason that this is a problem is that compared to other raw materials like oil, there is basically nothing that can be used as an acceptable substitute for helium in its scientific/industrial uses. Also, the prospects for finding new helium reserves is much lower than for many other materials.

It's going to run out eventually one day.

So whats the point in trying to conserve it? You're just delaying the problem by a few decades. What good does that do? (serious question).

We can delay the problem far more than a few decades. A lot of scientific equipment is now recycling helium, for example. It doesn't typically get consumed like oil or natural gas (it is inert, after all) so we can get by with our relatively fixed supply if we are smart about it. Which is why some people get really upset about the utter squandering of He.

To make them buoyant.

And to do the munchkin voice party trick.

The same could be accomplished with hydrogen gas, but if you get one too close to the birthday candles, they can produce a spectacular fireball that might startle your party guests into soiling themselves.

Human nature being what it is, that and the misattribution of the damages in the Hindenberg disaster to its hydrogen contents is quite enough to convince people to use the inert fossil gas instead of the reactive renewable gas.

Methane and ammonia party balloons haven't caught on, either, probably due to explodiness and stinkiness, respectively.

Part of it is because the US government directed the reserve to sell Helium off to pay it's debt.

We were using Helium decades ago though, I'm not sure why the price has always been cheap enough to justify using it as a party favor. One would think it would follow a typical supply/demand curve at some point.

The short answer is that the "we're running out of helium" scare stories have always been grossly misleading, for much the same reasons that we've been hitting "peak oil" for two decades now.

Helium is available, as this story makes clear. But there's been enough of it recovered from mining & gas extraction that it hasn't been profitable to do direct helium-only exploration; this is also why it's cheap enough to use on birthday parties.

As the helium reserve declines, and known helium sources dry up, prices will rise (are rising). That will drive an increased market for helium exploration. Presumably demand for balloons is much more elastic than demand for medical helium, so I think the answer is "we aren't that short on helium yet".

> If helium is so important and rare why do we put it in balloons?

Same reason why we use potable water (an expensive resource) to flush our toilets - some mixture of laziness, lack of awareness, apathy, and cost.

Potable water is not expensive everywhere.

Also, laying a second, redundant network of water pipes so that we can flush with "gray water" would be ridiculously costly.

In buildings that can recycle their own water, gray water systems work, but it's a whole new problem to retrofit buildings with one.

That's a pretty good analogy. Both cases represent an insignificantly small usage of their respective resources, gain attention merely because they're immediately visible in our lives, and act as a distraction from the real problems. For water, agricultural use vastly outweighs the use from flushing toilets. For helium, medical and industrial uses far outweigh what goes into balloons.

I think your analogy is better than GPs, as you actually framed the issue in terms of proportional consumption.

Because the willingness to pay an helium balloon to a kid is higher than in most helium use-cases. (=> The added value per volume is way higher).

And there is also no - safe - cheaper alternatives.

That's how free market works !

What is wrong with people — why would you ever use BCf instead of kg? Same with barrels (oil) and kWh per day (power? energy? I get confused with all the different time units in there).

Use SI units FFS.

Measuring Helium by mass might produce numbers which seem underwhelming to a common audience.

I agree that Bcf is idiocy, but kWh is straightforward. And the hour is accepted for use in the SI.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Helium_Reserve https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helium_production_in_the_Unite...

I found those interesting reads as well. I did not know the US had the largest supply of Helium.

The "huge helium discovery" needs to get more real first. The startup Helium One has not yet drilled a well.[1] They're prospectors only at this point. You can read similar gold mining prospector reports if you're into that sort of thing.

[1] http://www.helium-one.com/projects/

I guess we'll be able to continue using helium mixes for open circuit scuba diving for a few more years. Hopefully that will allow sufficient time for rebreathers to become cheaper, simpler, and more reliable. I do feel bad about wasting a limited resource every time I go diving.

I wonder how accurate the estimate is for the size of the find? They say it was "independently verified", but if they were paying the bill for that verification they might have simply gotten what they wanted to hear.

It just should be more expensive, that is all. That is at least my understanding of the problem.

What is it about the MRI/superconducting applications that precludes recapture?

What percentage of helium goes into the residential balloon market?

Just curious.

start a race and the next big thing will be a Helium bubble

The rift valley where this was found cuts straight through the Serengeti, one of the largest and most awesome national parks in the world. I hope this doesn't tear that area up.

We run out of things we could possibly run out of!!!

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