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We may not be running out of helium after all (2015) (newatlas.com)
87 points by welder 74 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 77 comments

We are still running out. All this claims is that we may have a little more in reserve than previously thought. Helium still floats up into space unrecoverably when released. The article contains this information, but the headline is wrong.

According to the first source I found, helium escapes into space at about 50 grams per second, for the entire planet. It seems at least possible that it is being produced at a greater rate than that, by radioactive decay.


As I have heard it, the cost of recovering helium from the upper atmosphere is daunting and nowhere near reasonable prices.

How is that relevant? If the production is happening deep inside Earth, we can capture it before it makes it to the atmosphere.

The problem is that we stopped doing exactly this leading to the shortage

For now...until it becomes rare enough to be worth the cost.

No, we've never been running out. The government liquidating the strategic reserve distorted the price, but it will adjust.

Helium is produced from natural gas wells but with the prices for the gas where they have been for so long no one bothers to capture it - it's not worth it, it's just vented to the atmosphere and escapes.

So "running out of helium" basically means "running out of cheap helium and the price will go up until it establishes a balance with the cost of producing it from the ground instead of a government storage tank".

For as long as we get natural gas out of the ground, we will have helium.

So what ~50 years?

I often wonder what it will be like for the next intelligent species/civilization that develops on earth. With all the easily accessible resources already mined will get get stuck in the steampunk age? Sure there might still some left where we could find it with advanced equipment, but not if you're just starting out.

Do planets essentially get one shot at advanced civilization?

I think it's the exact opposite though - if we suddenly died out then whatever comes after us will have much easier, not harder time. We've already extracted so many natural resources that there is an abundance of them on the surface. You could build an entire civilization just using our leftovers, no need to dig iron out, just melt the hundreds of millions of automobile husks that will be everywhere. And there's still trillions of barrels of oil left in the ground, as well as loads of coal left.

> You could build an entire civilization just using our leftovers, no need to dig iron out, just melt the hundreds of millions of automobile husks that will be everywhere.

Not sure if this is practical. In contrast to ore which is basically rock and more-or-less pure iron (or other desired metal), automobiles are a wild mix of different alloys which would have to be extensively processed (if this is possible in the first place). With plastics, the situation is similar if not worse, given that not all plastics melt, and burned fuel is burned and cannot be recovered at all.

The only thing where our civilizational waste can be used is if someone invents a Star Trek replicator clone.

The 2nd shot is detailed in Dune.

What do you mean by that? I don't remember the specifics of their "second shot" other than they had some sort of AI revolution that was crushed.

I think that they are implying the civilisation of Dune is the second shot, and therefore the thought that there is only one shot is not correct.

Yes, this was essentially my thinking, although I meant it at least partially in jest since Dune is of course fictional.

I suppose I meant: what was the first shot that failed in Dune?

Well, we will leave a lot of concentrated radioactive material in dump pits. A bit like the dinos leaving oil in the ground just a lot harder to engineer easy ways of harvesting the energy....

This squares nicely with my understanding of what "reserves" are when talking about extractive resources.

Namely, the known quantity of a resource that can be extracted in an economical viable manner using current technologies.

So there are a number of variables that can affect the size of a reserve that have nothing to do with how much of the resource is known to exist.

The helium reserve they're talking about is an actual facility that stores helium. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Helium_Reserve

Any usage of Helium could be described as "running out" as it's not renewable without expensive reclamation from the air.

A thing I learned several years ago that makes a lot of these "running out" articles less troublesome is that having "X years" of reserves for a compound really means "The places we have bothered to look are sufficient to fill demand for X years."

When the reserves start getting low, you go look in some other likely place, and lo and behold, Y more years of reserves!

More precisely, the peak [insert resource] arguments boil down to "at the current price and level of technology, there is X amount of this resource left." Of course, as the supply diminishes, the price goes up, and it becomes cost-effective to harvest that resource from more expensive places and with more expensive means, AND the incentive to improve the technology for extraction/identification or invent new technology for new types of extraction is increased.

But it is inarguable that there is a finite and ever decreasing amount of {helium,petroleum} in the earth. While we may not now be at peak [insert resource], and may not be in your lifetime or mine, such a point must exist and I would bet that the children of today’s newborns will be alive to grapple with the consequences of it.

The Earth is finite, as is the time until the Sun will swallow it, so "it's finite" it true about literally every resource.

It seems more a way to fuel depressions than a useful way to analyze anything.

No, that is not what peak oil arguments boil down to. Peak oil arguments boil down to the observation that the humans are extracting (and burning) oil faster than it is being made, about five orders of magnitude faster in fact, and therefore at some point extraction will have to fall—presumably permanently, but at least for a few million years.

There are other resource concerns that are sometimes expressed in a form mimicking the peak-oil reasoning, but (with the exception of other fossil fuels and helium) the parallel is specious. Not, however, for the reason you cite (which applies equally well to oil), but because used platinum, phosphorus, lithium, and so on, are not destroyed; they can be mined from landfills or, in the case of phosphorus, the ocean. So intellectually sloppy advocates of conservation of these other resources imitate the well-founded peak-oil argument in a sad attempt to give their shabby arguments a veneer of respectability.

However, while Hubbert’s original reasoning for why an oil-extraction peak must exist is valid, his methods for estimating when it would happen have not held up.

But then things are more expensive.

For those who cannot afford, expensive things might as well not exist.

So although more precise, it deflects from the fact that the important aspect is economics.

Well, maybe, maybe not -- due to increases in efficiency, increases in GDP per capita, and technological progress, most resources have generally gotten cheaper over time with respect to incomes.

In the case of oil reserves, they are defined as the amount of oil which would be profitable to extract at current market prices. So it's not actually necessary to look in a new place; when the reserves start getting low, the oil price increases, and ipso facto the reserves are now bigger.

The reserve won't get bigger but last longer. Small but important difference.

No, the reserve is measured by volume, and when the oil price goes up, the physical volume of the reserves increases. The reserve very literally gets bigger.

I said this already -- the volume of the reserve is not related to the amount of oil in the ground. It's the amount of oil that can be _profitably_ extracted _at current market prices_. If the price increases, so does the reserve.

Similarly, if the oil price falls, the oil reserve shrinks, despite the amount of oil in the ground being the same.

It's ironic that Earth is running out of the second most abundant element in the universe. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abundance_of_the_chemical_elem...

Isn't helium expected to be a byproduct of commercial fusion?

Commercial fusion does not exist, and the amounts of helium would be irrelevant.

This is from four years ago – anyone have a substantive update?

Still seems a waste to pump it into party balloons. What are going to do in a few hundred years time when we use these new reserves. Seems a little selfish to just let them worry about it when the time comes.

We need a sense of scale to call something a "waste". How do the resources used to make a party balloon compare to the resources for some other equally-fun thing?

An equally fun thing would be filling them with hydrogen, which is really not that dangerous.

Actually hydrogen would be way more than "equally" fun at birthday parties, which typically feature candles...

Especially hilarious when someone tries and fails with the squeeky voice trick.

Squeaky voice still works with Hydrogen gas, similar to Helium.

Yes, but if you happen to speak into the general direction of a burning candle, things can get very exciting.

Oh the humanity!

I though the other uses for Helium was life saving medicine.

How many balloons does it take before a life is lost?

I remember reading somewhere that the amount of helium used in industrial processes vastly outweighs the amount used for party balloons.

If we're still around in a few hundred years, well, I'm sure we'll manage.

Nuclear fusion can provide all the helium we could need in the future.

Fusion produces such a large amount of energy for such a small amount of fuel, it's unlikely to be a significant source of helium.

However, controlled fusion would let us build fantastic rockets, so we could harvest all the helium we want from the outer planets.

A fusion reactor produces what, a few dozen grams a year?

Are you asking about current reactors or ones in the future that are powering civilization and fusing hydrogen continuously?

The energy consumption of the entire human race was about 146,000 TWh per year in 2015 [1]. That's 26 times more than before the industrial revolution. Since energy usage will still rise for a while, let's generously assume for now that the hypothetical future civilization will consume 10 times more than the 2015 value, or 1,460,000 TWh per year.

(I'm assuming that population does not grow more than currently anticipated. I think this is fair because I later compare the number to our current Helium production which probably would scale up as well if the population were to significantly increase.)

The proton-proton chain reaction, the process that creates Helium-4 by fusing hydrogen plasma, releases 26.73 MeV of energy when creating a single helium atom out of 4 hydrogen atoms. [2] The molar mass of helium-4 is 4.002602 g/mol [3]. With this, we can do a quick trip to our favorite unit-aware calculator, units(1), to find how much Helium would be produced if our hypothetical future civilization used hydrogen fusion for all its energy needs:

  (1460000 TWh / year) / 26.73 MeV / avogadro * 4.002602 g/mol
  = 8157132.36 kg / year
Since Helium is a gas, it is more commonly measured in volume, so let's multiply that with its density at STP of 0.1786 g/L [4]:

  (1460000 TWh / year) / 26.73 MeV / avogadro * 4.002602 g/mol / (0.1786 g / liter)
  = 45672633.63 m^3/year
Most Helium is produced by the United States (78% market share as of 2008 [4]), so let's just use their current production numbers as a comparison.

> Helium production in the United States totaled 73 million cubic meters in 2014. [5]

That's 60% more than what would be produced by the future fusion reactors in my scenario. While it's true that I made a generous assumption by inflating the energy usage 10-fold, it appears that covering our Helium needs with fusion reactors is way more attainable than I imagined. We just need to cut back on wasting Helium a bit. The biggest "if" is, of course, if and when fusion reactors become economically viable.

[1] https://ourworldindata.org/energy-production-and-changing-en... [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proton%E2%80%93proton_chain_re... [3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helium_atom [4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helium [5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helium_production_in_the_Unite...

A few things: I believe your energy per year numbers are electric grid consumption. Steam cycle power plants make roughly 3x more thermal energy than their electrical output. Typically a "1 GW power plant" can produce up to 3 GW thermal power.

Also current target fusion reactions are not based on the p-p chain. That is a much more difficult reaction to achieve. We're currently targeting D+T for first generation reactors. D+D is also very attractive because it is aneutronic and perhaps clever reactor design would allow for direct conversion of electricity. Energy in aneutronic fusion reactions is released as an acceleration of charged particles: a current. This current can be harvested through magnetic fields and thermal to electric efficiency can go up to 50% (maybe higher?). The actual details of this seem rather tricky since magnetic confinement devices are already tightly controlling the magnetic fields inside the reactor. It will be fun science and engineering for sure.

There are a few other commonly examined reactions, such as p+B11, but they're likely not going to be made viable reactions for energy production before D+T. These other reactions are all easier to achieve (in terms of Lawson criterion) than the stellar proton fusion chain.

I'll reuse your math with D+T=He-4+n and 3x energy production.

  (4380000 TWh / year) / 17.59 MeV / avogadro * 4.002602 g/mol
  = 41425784.21 kg / year

  (4380000 TWh / year) / 17.59 MeV / avogadro * 4.002602 g/mol / (0.1786 g / liter)
  = 231947280 m^3/year
Hopefully there aren't any glaring errors here. More views would be appreciated.

I think the largest issues here are:

1. as you acknowledged, the assumption that energy production would increase by tenfold

2. that all electrical energy produced would be made by fusion reactors

By the time we get to a state where a serious percentage of energy production was from fusion power we would likely be looking into more aggressively into other reactions and designs.

Even if we just said 30% of all energy used today was made from D+T fusion that would still be generating 10% of our current helium usage. That's a significant amount and a lot more than the 4 orders of magnitude that is oft cited online (https://www.reddit.com/r/askscience/comments/12r2s7/helium_i...). At a glance, it appears that the posts in this thread miscalculate how much fuel is necessary for a certain amount of energy. They glaze over that part of their calculations. I much prefer your dimensional analysis approach.

For any readers looking for the same warm fuzzy I have, you can paste this into wolframalpha and actually get a rate of helium production over time.


  (.3 * 438000 TWh / year) / (17.59 MeV) / (avogadro's number 1/mol) * (4.002602 g/mol)

> I believe your energy per year numbers are electric grid consumption.

No, according to my source, it includes combustion.

Oh I see. My reference for energy consumption is wikipedia. When I was trying to dig for the primary source yesterday I found the link was dead and the equivalent live location of it (IEA key world energy statistics) was behind a paywall. I didn't expect such a large discrepancy between the wikipedia reference and other sources.


Scott Adams’ law of slow-moving disasters continues to predict the future.

How was helium extracted to build those reserves in the first place? (Fractional distillation of liquid natural gas?) Is that simply not viable or cost effective anymore?

I believe a lot of the US government stockpile of helium was from nuclear reaction byproducts.

it's removed from "natural gas" when they make LNG. the amount generated by nuclear reaction byproducts is trivial by comparison. See https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0022311570...

So it'll be running out of helium that will make it finally cost effective? /s

You're thinking of He3 isotopes. Standard He4 is a byproduct from natural gas extraction.

Helium has a lower condensation temperature than Natural Gas, so when they make liquid natural gas for shipping, they can take out some percentage of the helium relatively easily and more with difficulty.

If this is correct then it's good news for those balloon based internet projects which always stuck me as short sighted in light of the view at the time that helium was running out

That’s no problem, those balloons could always just use hydrogen!

Maybe you’re joking, but really, why not? They’re unmanned, and so a catastrophic failure is much less of a concern. If helium scarcity is a serious enough problem, then by all means, full those blooms with H2 and launch them from a safe zone.

The problem with hydrogen is that it is a much smaller molecule than helium and leaks from light, thin-walled containers like balloons. Heck, it can even leak along grain boundaries in metal containers.

Helium leaks too, just at a slower rate. Hydrogen is cheaper to top up.

If you're trying to keep a massive network of balloons aloft to provide wide-area internet connectivity, the logistics involved in topping up the gas mean that the frequency of top-ups required may be a greater concern than the cost of the gas involved.

Chemical (non-electrolysis) hydrogen generators are a thing, although not directly useful for larger scale needs like the fuel cell hype, they are adequate for topping up balloons.

"We" will run out of everything, eventually, as long as we live on only one planet.

Not at all. Most stuff stays on the planet after we use it. Oil turns to plastic which gets put in a landfill. If you ever want that carbon back you can just go get it. Used helium floats up to the top of the atmosphere and blows away into space never to return. At the current rate of use we’ll run out of helium in the next few generations, and then that’s it. After that if you need helium you’ll have to get it from another planet.

How did the helium get here to begin with?

very uplifting news

Levity not appreciated.

Woo! Hoo! let the helium rush begin

(spoken in a high squeaky voice)

Seriously though what they seem to be saying is that there's somewhere up in the Rockies where you might be able to dig a helium well

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