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Helium shortages will impact quantum computer research (techrepublic.com)
65 points by jonbaer 35 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 25 comments



Maybe this is a dumb question but if people believe helium is valuable, and we put helium into useless balloons, why aren’t people buying up large quantities of helium and saving it for inevitable price increases?


Partly because you can't store helium long term, it escapes from any known container.

There are probably individuals that have tried to store large amounts, but are going to have a sad feeling when they try to let the helium out from their million dollar bunch of tanks.


Wasn’t the National Helium Reserve[1] just that, a long term helium storage facility?

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



Source? I can't find anything on long term helium storage being impossible.


It's the smallest monatomic gas, so it can wriggle through even the tiniest of holes.

Normally you'd liquify a gas to store it, but helium doesn't liquify until you crank it down to 4°K, which is really, really cold. Liquid oxygen and nitrogen have significantly higher boiling points.

Now if you do liquify it, the real fun is it's a superfluid so it's going to crawl all over the inside of the container, it won't just stay at the bottom.

So if you don't keep it at 4°K, or -270°C, it's going to boil, and if it boils it's a gas, and if it's a gas it's going to find any opening to squeeze out of.


>Now if you do liquify it, the real fun is it's a superfluid so it's going to crawl all over the inside of the container, it won't just stay at the bottom.

Not true. LHe’s boiling point (at atmospheric pressure) is 4.2K. The lambda point when it becomes a superfluid is 2.2K. So there’s a decent temperature range when it behaves as a normal liquid.


Good clarification. I’ve regularly seen helium refills of an MEG scanner and apart from being cold it didn’t look particularly troublesome.


Good point but it also means that if you can keep it precisely in the 2.2K to 4.2K range then nothing strange happens.

That's a pretty narrow band to operate in.


It’s a wider range than you think. Temperatures work logarithmically.

The lambda point occurs at roughly half the absolute temperature of the boiling point.

For comparison room temp is roughly 300K, and half of that is 150K or minus 120°C.

Would you call the temperature range between minus 120°C and room temp (call it 20°C) a “narrow band”?


It's not impossible. You just need a tank with thicker walls.


You could surely store it in a closed container though? Buy a bunch of tanks, weld them closed. Even try putting a thin coat of something over the sealed tank so that it's more leak resistant.


That's harder than it sounds; helium (like hydrogen) has a tendency to leak through anything you put it in due to its tiny molecule size.


Can it go through lots of solid metal, copper for instance?


I would presume so, given that hydrogen (which is bigger in molecular form than helium), leaks out of almost any container you put it in (hence why hydrogen cars have never taken off). But I haven't got any personal experience with it.

There's also the problem of sealing the vessel it's in - since you're almost certainly keeping helium as a gas, it's going to leak through the smallest gap.


Interesting tidbit, but that’s not why hydrogen cars have not taken off. There’s currently no real infrastructure for producing, distributing, or storing hydrogen, and in-vehicle storage poses safety issues. Even if we put in the effort to solve those issues, we’d wind up with a monoculture like we have for gas now. It’s much better to use electricity as an intermediary, as we already have the infrastructure to handle it and you can use any kind of fuel to generate it.


So if we can't store it, then we can't waste it either? So how are we having a shortage?


As far as I know, it's not a shortage of helium, it's a shortage of cheap helium.

Back when blimps were a thing, the US stored a shitload of helium in a big cave. In around 2007, the US government was like "We don't need all this helium" and started selling off the reserve at super low prices.

Helium is often just vented to the atmosphere when mining natural gas, so we could capture it if we wanted, but right now it's not really worth it since we still have some cheap helium sitting around.


So the solution to the contradiction is that it is possible to store helium after all.


You can 'store it', but it leaks over time.

If you were to buy 10 billion cubic metres of helium today as a hedge on prices rising in 10 years, you may well return to find that you have significantly less in 10 years time.

The ways it's 'stored' are

a) in large [very] deep caves, which is the sort of investment an individual cannot generally make as you don't own your property to the centre of the earth.

b) in cryogenic thick walled tanks with the understanding that you will lose helium constantly, but are able to replace it with new helium. This requires a 'constant' resupply of helium, plus energy expenditure in the form of keeping it cryogenically chilled. This isn't a 'long term' storage plan, and assumes that helium prices stay low.

c) by extracting it from the ground - this is how we get helium on earth as it is, we find it in pockets alongside natural gas at reasonably great depths. This is essentially tapping into the planet's own version of method 'a'.

Method 'a' is the only real 'long term storage' we can do, and even then it leaks as long as there is some method to remove it again from the storage.



Should probably be noted, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helium-3, "The abundance of helium-3 is thought to be greater on the Moon than on Earth" and https://io9.gizmodo.com/could-helium-3-really-solve-earths-e...


This might be useful only for future fusion reactors. It's too expensive for cooling purposes though.


The article discusses several current uses for He3 and cites a yearly demand of 70,000 liters.


There’s efforts to rebuild circuit QED such that temperatures this low aren’t needed. I wouldn’t worry too much about this.




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