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Helium Shortage Is Hurting Parties and the Pharma Industry (bloomberg.com)
85 points by pseudolus on May 11, 2019 | hide | past | web | favorite | 86 comments




One thing about helium: once its released to the atmosphere its gone forever. Because it is so light it not only heads upwards, the velocity of the atoms is high enough that some exceed the Earth's escape velocity and don't come down. The only helium on Earth is either in tanks or still underground.

Its a finite resource, we are using it up, and we can never make any more until we get to the outer planets.


>>> ... we can never make any more until we get to the outer planets.

We can. It isn't easy/cheap and may never be totally practical, but it can be done for less than the costs of getting it from the outer planets.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fusor

There are also replacements for helium. They aren't exact replacements and do come with their own issues (liquid hydrogen = fire). With effort, they can be used. Hydrogen under vacuum pressure can be made to boil at temperatures close enough to helium for most applications.

Helium can also be recycled, which today rarely happens. It is not generally collected as a gas and re-liquefied. Maybe if its availability goes down, driving its cost up, people might make efforts to recapture the helium they boil.


Most of the time when people make comments like that, they don’t actually mean “impossible” — they mean within the realm of reality. No one is going to be fusing helium in quantities high enough to run MRI machines. It would greatly add to the discussion if we didn’t have to address these red herrings.


Not how we use it now, but the total amount of helium needed to run an MRI machine (with recapture) isn't all that much. Devices like acoustic cold fingers can use a very very small amount of helium to create a steady heat pump. Currently, such devices are not integrated into MRI machines because tubs of liquid helium are cheaper, but there is no reason why we couldn't build a closed-cycle MRI machine that didn't use any net helium.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermoacoustic_heat_engine

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pulse_tube_refrigerator


Again, not the point of the discussion. MRI was a simple example of how we use helium today. I could have easily said party balloons. It would help any conversation you have in general to avoid nitpicking on insignificant items and keep the discussion on the main point (which, if I have to spell it out, is the quantity of helium required to do various things)

I do understand that when helium is depleted we will probably find other ways to accomplish things, but it’s still silly to be venting a gas that we KNOW has a finite amount over the lifetime of the Earth or using it for party balloons.


There are MRI machines that use nearly zero helium: https://www.medgadget.com/2018/09/philips-helium-free-mri-sy...


Large NMR facilities have started recycling their helium: Yale, Harvard, Madison, UGA.


It wasn't a red herring - the post he replied to reads: "we can never make any more until we get to the outer planets."


Of course not, not when helium is relatively cheap and plentiful. But when we're nearly out of helium, you'd better bet we'll figure it out.


I did the calculations once and the heat generated by helium production equal to use was approximately equal to the total solar radiation on the planet. Cheap and practical don't make the cut, the physics of fusing hydrogen make it impossible.


Farnsworth fusors are primarily interesting nightlights not a source of Helium. Otherwise they would quickly kill everyone in the room when you turn them on.

Even if the entire world was 100% running on fusion power we would still be short orders of magnitude from our current demand. MRI machines can switch to designs that don’t use helium, parties are simply going to have to go without long term.


Which is why I find helium balloons so damn distasteful. Probably the amount of helium used in balloons is not all that significant in reality, but helium balloons are complete vanity throwaways, so it is more of a question of principle and symbol.


No more metallic mylar balloons? Good riddance. https://www.powerprotectionresource.com/articles/439843-myla...


I have found dead, decaying Mylar balloons in nearly every park I’ve ever been to. I found one a mile off the road in panamint valley, and one in sequoia national park.

They suck.


I am a regular wanderer of the Mazatzal Wilderness, one of the most desolate areas left in thw lower 48. In 5 years and 100+ milea of rugged terrain I have found dozens of mylar balloons. Their absence will be welcomed.


Most helium in the universe was created by the Big Bang, or through stellar fusion ("helium" comes from "helios", it was discovered by spectral analysis of the Sun).[1]

Virtually all helium on Earth was formed on Earth, through radioactive decay within its interior, releasing beta particles (helium nuclei). The helum industrially sourced tends to come from natural gas extraction -- the same reservoirs which trap natural gas (methane) also trap helium fairly well.[2]

Molecular hydrogen also exceeds escape velocity. About 1/4 of the water originally present on earth has escaped to space, after being dissociated into hydrogen and oxygen.[3]

________________________________

Notes:

1. https://www.worldcat.org/title/researches-on-the-solar-spect...

2. https://geology.com/articles/helium/

3. http://sciencenordic.com/earth-has-lost-quarter-its-water


> One thing about helium: once its released to the atmosphere its gone forever. Because it is so light it not only heads upwards, the velocity of the atoms is high enough that some exceed the Earth's escape velocity and don't come down.

I'm all for preserving helium, but sensationalist BS doesn't help.

> On the surface of the Earth, the escape velocity is about 11.2 km/s

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Escape_velocity

The thermal velocity (at room temperature) of He is 1.245 km/s

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermal_velocity

There is no way that Helium reaches escape velocity without some sort of mechanical assistance.

I've heard it theorized that Helium, because it is prone to float at the outer edges of the atmosphere, is particularly susceptible to being stripped away by solar winds. I don't have sufficient expertise to evaluate this claim, but it seems at least plausible. This can't be happening very much, though, or our atmosphere would much more closely resemble that of Mars, which lacks a protective magnetosphere.


> There is no way that Helium reaches escape velocity without some sort of mechanical assistance.

Thermal velocity is an average - there is a distribution of velocities around this average. It says that right in the article you linked to.

At the high end of the distribution, some Helium atoms will indeed have velocities greater than the Earth's escape velocity.


I had this impression as well, but there's something else going on. If you run the numbers, at T=293, there's a negligible fraction above 5 km/s. The atmospheric loss models typically use an exosphere temperature of T=1000, but again, negligible fraction above 10 km/s.

However, there were some contradictions I couldn't immediately understand. This source [1] says "Only about one in a million helium atoms is lost from Earth via Jeans’ escape.". But it also cites a plot from [2] showing the rule-of-thumb for Jeans' escape: 1/6th the escape velocity vs the RMS thermal velocity. In this case, He has an RMS velocity of 2.5 km/s at T=1000, which is greater than 1.9 km/s.

[1] https://geosci.uchicago.edu/~kite/doc/Catling2009.pdf [2] http://geosci.uchicago.edu/~kite/doc/Catling_and_Kasting_ch_...


Agreed the article is not very clear. From the context of the surrounding paragraph though, I think it means one in a million helium atoms is lost via Jeans’ escape every year. Which would obviously be quite a significant factor on any geological timescale.


Helium does escape the atmosphere, a naive comparison of average heat velocities notwithstanding. The linked articles say as much, along with https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atmospheric_escape



I believe it gets much hotter in the upper atmosphere. Though there isn't much actual matter there.


Helium is continuously created by radioactive decay of other elements underground. But it's a slow process; we're using helium at an unsustainable rate.


Didn't we capture most of it from nuclear reactors decades ago?


You may be thinking about He-3. It is extracted during maintenance from tritium in nuclear bombs (tritium is a neutron source but He-3 a most efficient neutron absorber). I think now there is also a spallation plant at Oak Ridge. Yearly production is a few kilograms. Interesting stuff.


Mostly from mining and gas extraction. The source is nuclear decay of natural isotopes.

See e.g. https://www.quora.com/What-are-main-sources-of-helium-gas


Do you really think that if you could buy helium and store it for 100 or 1000 years, you'd make more of a profit than investing the money?


Helium is really hard to store for long periods due to the molecule size. It will permeate almost all containers pretty rapidly.


That's not the point of my hypothetical question, since it has the same rhetorical force in worlds where helium is impossible to store as ones where it's easy. The point is to think about your expectation of helium prices compared to interest rates.


But what - happens if the atoms leave earths gravity well? They get pushed by solar winds, meaning the earth has always left a slight trail of helium atoms, spiraling (in system reference frame) slowly outwards- same goes for all other planets.

So- spacebased, scoop - spiral catching to get this?


As far as I have understood it, the US government was selling off helium stockpiles cheaply for the last 20 years, and now the consumers aren't willing/able to pay prices high enough to encourage production to rise quickly enough...


Yes I was curious why cost were so low yet there was a shortage.


The increased price of helium has also made it much more expensive to do deep scuba dives. More divers are buying closed circuit rebreathers, which are expensive and risky, but have the advantage of conserving helium.


OT, but I think you might find this link interesting:

https://www.onr.navy.mil/en/Media-Center/Press-Releases/2015...


Thanks that's interesting. However as sport divers we're not required to take risks the way military divers have to in order to accomplish their missions. So rather than taking drugs which might or might not work, it's safer to just limit oxygen exposure even if that makes decompression times a bit longer.


I think the exciting part of the research is that ketone salts aren’t really a drug, they’re a dietary supplement to reproduce the metabolic effects of the ketogenic diet.


Helium party balloons are Evil. They escape and end up as non-decomposable trash in the wilderness. This is not a theoretic concern: I usually find one or more every year.


Only the mylar ones, and the string.

Normal latex balloons are biodegradable.


Normal latex balloons take 6 months to 4 years to biodegrade, which is plenty of time to ruin scenery and choke a curious animal. https://encenter.org/visit-us/programs/birthday-parties/ball...


The price of helium doubled about five years ago. That's why Airship Ventures, the people with the blimp over Silicon Valley, shut down.


Just fill it up with hydrogen, that should do it.


Well everyone immediately thinks of the Hindenburg, but the Graf Zeppelin flew 1.7 million km and 590 flights over 9 years until it was scrapped for its aluminium.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LZ_127_Graf_Zeppelin




I think it even weighs less and the footage of burning airships makes great news...


Any sources / more info on that?

I've been looking into the airship question recently, raised the AV failure, wasn't aware of the cause.

https://mastodon.cloud/@dredmorbius/102054965695434021



One proposed energy storage technology is via liquid air. Air would be liquefied at times of surplus power, then warmed to room temperature and expanded to generate power later.

If adopted on a large scale, tremendous volumes of air will be liquefied daily. One can imagine tapping this stream to extract the helium, which will remain gaseous.


He is like 0.0005% of air. This seems impractical.


Neon is 0.001818 (only about 3 or 4 times as much) and yet we collect it.

You don't really need much helium for what it's used for, it could work - prices would go up, but we wouldn't run out.


helium only liquefies at ultra low temps, way below that required to liquefy most components of air.


He means all the rest of the air will liquefy, and capture what didn't liquefy.


Well, not all the rest. There's neon, and the liquid air itself will have nonzero vapor pressure. So it will depend on how far below the boiling point of nitrogen the air is cooled.

EDIT: actually, it will depend on the solubility of helium in the liquid air.


I reject the thesis of this article. Specifically that a shortage of helium, and therefore balloons, is hurting parties. Not even at a child's birthday party would I think, "Where are all the balloons? This party SUCKS!!!"


A child might think that though, and if it's your child that is upset, it'd be natural to empathise, regardless of whether or not you think balloons are beneath you. Balloons generally aren't there for adults.


If your kid loves balloons so much why not fill them with air and tape them to the walls? That's what parents generally did when I was a kid.


But seeing something go up when everything else in the world goes down is just in another league.

When I was a kid, helium balloons were much less common than today (at least in my country) and I remember seeing them as objects of desire.


Better yet, fill party balloons with hydrogen gas and light 'em off at the end.


Filling party balloons with methane is pretty much standard in south asia from what I've seen; it carries risks, but it also gives the fun of getting rid of the balloons explosively.


Can someone explain why we have a shortage? I'm a little confused given current drilling in the US.


A big reason for the shortage is that about 75% of all the helium comes from just three places: Ras Laffan Industrial City in Qatar, ExxonMobil in Wyoming and the National Helium Reserve in Texas, according to gas-trade publication Gasworld.com.

In Texas, the reserves are being depleted, while at the same time overall demand for the gas has been growing.

https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2019/05/09/helium-short...

"In 1996, the US Congress decided to sell off the strategic reserve and the consequence was that the market was swelled with cheap helium because its price was not determined by the market. The motivation was to sell it all by 2015"

https://arstechnica.com/science/2016/06/discovery-of-massive...


Thanks. Wasn't Algeria(?) supposed to be building something?


Can someone explain why we have a shortage?

That would normally be the job of the journalist that wrote the article. ‘dafuq, Bloomberg? “You know, the helium shortage.” No, I don’t know, Bloomberg. Is it related to the sell-off of U. S. helium reserves a while back? Or is it something different this time?

Instead, we get “will your kids get balloons at their party this year?” Oh, and some brief mention about pharma, but we don’t really know how that works, so...yeah.


Ya, when I was a kid, we had balloons, but they didn't have helium in them. They just had DLA (dad lung air). This year, my kids didn't have helium balloons either... they just had DLA. They didn't care at all, maybe didn't even notice the difference. So ya, who cares about party usage -- the shortage itself is the real story. They buried the lead so deep they forgot to dig it up.


Gave me incentive to make hydrogen balloons from lye+Al reaction. Work just as well and then you get to blow them up later!


That sounds interesting. Is it reasonably safe to have hydrogen balloons around at a kid's party? Any major dangers to watch out for besides the obvious proximity to candles?


BBC News tends to do a better job of showing related articles which provide context to the given article.

Its helpful for geo-political news since I don't always have encyclopedic and historical knowledge of every region of the world.


Here in Australia (and perhaps elsewhere), the high altitude balloons used to measure upper atmosphere currents (aka radiosondes) use Hydrogen[0] for the balloons. They launch them often enough that they can justify the hydrogen generation and handling equipment, which has, as you may expect, more stringent requirements.

[0] http://www.antarctica.gov.au/living-and-working/stations/dav...


Generating hydrogen is very easy, there are numerous acid+metal and alkaline+metal processes that aren't expensive or use anything like rare materials. So as long as the exposure is such that explosive risks are minimal, it's a good option for lighter-than-air needs.

It's not, of course, much of an option for cryogenic processes where helium is required.


I don't understand how there is a helium shortage and not a natural gas shortage. Doesn't helium come as a byproduct of natural gas?


The market solves this (partially) by investors foreseeing the shortage and buying up stockpiles before they increase in value.

One problem is that when they later sell it these investors are often demonized as profiteers and speculators, and occasionally strung up in lampposts. Perhaps less so for this kind of goods.


This is a poorly written article that doesn't any cite sources or data.

Is it demand increasing prices or an actual shortage?


This will be known as age where people wasted Helium on stupid things. We might need it in the future.


Just think of how many resources were wasted making the game of thrones series.


Humans are wasting MUCH more than just Helium.


I think you're trying to imply this is bad, but for a happier angle on it, let's add to the list of things we're using up: time. We have a giant sun that's only going to be here once. Don't waste the finite time that it's given us for existence, advancement, building, providing for our descendants, playing, consuming the finite resources :)

> We might need it in the future.

Or we might discover an unlimited source of it. Unlikely? sure. But the problem with "what if" is that it's just too vague with the assumptions to add clarity, when we can't predict the repercussions of the even flap of a butterfly's wings (to borrow the expression).


Remember that Red Bull sponsored space free-fall dive off of that platform? Brought to you by helium - that's how he got to space.


The stratosphere is quite a ways from space. Also what is the point you're trying to make? I don't think anyone on either side of the argument is very concerned with a one time world record attempt from 2012 when talking about helium conservation in 2019.


Not every finite resource has to be used toward the advancement of civilization or for some greater cause.

Also, lots of things can have indirect positive effects. I know lots of people got interested in space and other cool things as a result of that jump.

I think sometimes it's good for humans to do a thing just to see if they can.


The helium shortage is a production problem.

At the current usage rate its estimated we have a 200 year supply left.


This is true, helium is present in basically all natural gas wells (it emanates from radioactive decay deep in the earth, and gets trapped in the same spots natural gas does).

Currently it is just vented out into the air, because capture isn't profitable.


But usage rate is growing fast - 8.5% per year according to this:

https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20160201005634/en/Glo...

an (obviously naive) extrapolation at that rate gives 35 years supply.


Oh. I thought you were going to say hurting the electronics industry as well.


Another reason to get DT fusion working.




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