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.
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.
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.
EDIT: never mind. if anyone was buying this at market value, it doesn't make sense for the buyer to store it indefinitely.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(weight of helium) = (measured weight) + (buoyancy force, which is the weight of an equal volume of air at the appropriate pressure) - (weight of cylinder)
> 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.
Great explanation, thank you.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Seems true to the tune of whatever exists minus 50 grams per second.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
EDIT: Thanks for the correction.
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.
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?
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?
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...
That's how we got the big stockpiles in the first place.
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".
Alpha Decay is just a low mass form of cluster decay.
What's your point exactly?
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.
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.
I'm not sure there is any conceivable way to use that in manufacturing helium gas at an industrial scale.
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.
> That's expensive, of course
You need to pick one.
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?
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.
(Hey, it's not any more or less plausible than what you said.)
What's sauce for the sad alien is sauce for the human empire, say I.
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.
Don't forget the other effect on sea life when they're released near water:
Aren't you the optimist.
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.
 - http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/helium/mcs-...
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 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.
It's in the Bible...
I really think there should be such people, but I didn't think there really were any.
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.
> 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.
* 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.
We simply don't know the future. That's valid for both directions.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We increase the price. By taxing it for example. Capitalism deals with the rest.
Here's a great Quora post on the escape process: https://www.quora.com/What-makes-hydrogen-and-helium-and-ato...
Hm... One try, one hit. Maybe it's not that rare after all?
Helium [...] is critical to [...] MRI scanner
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.
But I think we are getting closer all the time...
...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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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".
Same reason why we use potable water (an expensive resource) to flush our toilets - some mixture of laziness, lack of awareness, apathy, and cost.
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.
And there is also no - safe - cheaper alternatives.
That's how free market works !
Use SI units FFS.
I found those interesting reads as well. I did not know the US had the largest supply of Helium.