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Are we really running out of helium? (quora.com)
216 points by caffeinewriter on Feb 24, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 121 comments



Stealing my own comment from HN on this:

That article reads a lot like "Peak Oil" concerns. There is a lot of Helium available - [1] The global reserves of helium are known to be approximately 41 billion cubic meters. Most of them lie in Qatar, Algeria, the USA and Russia. Annual global production of helium is about 175 million cubic meters, and the USA remains the largest producer. "

Regardless, this is something the market can correct for very, very easily. As helium supply becomes more scarce, the price will go up, resulting in greater supply. Most of it comes from natural gas, and is so cheap [2] it's not worth capturing. Oil trades for around $100/barrel. Helium trades at $100 for a thousand cubic feet (albeit in gas form)

Some of the problems with Helium is that Physics experiments use a LOT, and previously was so cheap that it wasn't worth trying to conserve. That's changing - [3] A recycling system can recapture about $12,000/year of lost helium for a single scientist.

From reading articles - apparently the problems isn't so much that the cost of helium is increasing - but that it's been so cheap because of the US Natural Reserves making it completely non-competitive to capture - they are basically giving the stuff away for next to nothing.

[1] http://www.gazprominfo.com/articles/helium/

[2] http://finance.yahoo.com/news/airgas-increase-prices-helium-... And on Friday, the bureau announced that it was raising the price for a thousand cubic feet for crude helium from $84 to $95

[3] http://www.nature.com/news/united-states-extends-life-of-hel...


While the US dumping its helium supply was utterly stupid and distorts the market terribly.

41 billion cubic meters / 7 billion people = less than six cubic meters per person on the planet, and when it's gone it's gone. That does not sound so hot.


Yes. People who respond to shortages of non renewable resources by saying, "I'm not concerned. Actual peak oil is 40 years further down the road than these people think it is" don't seem to grasp that that is not actually a lot of time.


This also doesn't take into account that we price helium for birthday balloons at the same price as helium for MRI machines.


I advocate switching to hydrogen for birthday balloons.

"Blow out the candles! Blow them out, quick!"


Completely agree that dumping the helium supply was short sighted - better approach would have been to auction it off in 5 billion cubic meters/lot, perhaps every 5 years, and let the market set a price.


Your arguments could be nitpicked, but lets skip that and just take as a given that you are 100% correct. That doesn't change the fact that helium is a non-renewable resource. Conservation makes sense. Maybe it won't matter to us today, or even in 40 years. But it will matter to someone else in 140 years.

In my mind, any decisions made based on markets are a short-term strategy. If a resource is non-renewable, I prioritize conservation. Where practical, I use renewable resources.


Let's just hope we've perfected hydrogen fusion by that time. Then we'll have as much energy and helium as we want!


True of energy, but not of helium. Fusion produces a lot of energy from very little fuel. Running the world on fusion would supply a tiny fraction of our helium demand.


I was being sarcastic.


Do you mean fission?


You're going to split hydrogen atoms? Into what exactly?


We'll split H into three parts: |,-, and |.


> Oil trades for around $100/barrel.

Wavering around $55/barrel at the moment.


> Regardless, this is something the market can correct for very, very easily.

This is something I don't really trust. We see that with oil and environmental concerns - when things get scarcer, subsidies start, distorting the price. Should we really put our hopes in the market, praying that it will save us?


The many billions of dollars invested in tar-sands in Canada were a market response to the increased price of Oil. They wouldn't have existed at $25/barrel Oil, but were inspire by $75/barrel Oil. I'm strongly arguing that if the price of Helium shifts from $100/1000 Cubic feet to $1000/1000 Cubic feet, that we'll likewise see similar market responses in terms of production of Helium. And we'll see radical moves towards recycling also.


And thank god for the mining of the tar sands, am I right?


This. It goes for fracking as well, where there are significant and real externalities wrought by these new methods of extracting resources from Earth. Companies largely aren't being made to pay them. It's true that the market does correct for the diminishing of supply somewhat with an increase in price, but this is not the only mechanism in play as the pureblood capitalists would have you believe. Rather, existing players are also using their political influence to weaken legislation that was originally designed to force companies to deal with these externalities, at least partly [1].

As a result, the true cost of these new resources is greater than it appears, and furthermore the external costs in our poorer health, the destruction of our environment, and the corruption of our political system, make up a greater portion of the total cost of the resource, than previous methods of extraction. There is no reason to believe this trend will reverse.

[1] Complain all you want that this isn't "true" capitalism. I don't care. The fact is we've decided that pricing these externalities directly into the market is too hard or has too much overhead, and so we patched over it with laws. If you want to change that, go ahead and try, but don't advocate weakening legislation to force someone to deal with these externalities until after you're successful.


I agree with you. Arguments about "true free-market capitalism" are funny, because we neither have it nor we'd really want to have it - exactly because of externalities and some other failure modes we do need laws to patch up.


I'm replying to the part of your post that you edited out, after I edited out the part of my post that your edited-out part was addressing :)

Yes, you're right. I overreacted, a lot. So I removed it.

But, I stand by the sentiment. This place is downright hostile to productive discussion. Your account can have a dozen or so hexes capriciously placed on it by the mods - and you'll never know directly if this was done, to say nothing of why it was done. A single downvote will grey out your post, as if the community needs to be protected from your thoughts because one jerk decided he would downvote your post (in this case so quickly after I made the post that I wonder if he even bothered to read it all).

HN members worry about 'becoming Reddit' without stopping to wonder if that would be an improvement. From a moderation and forum software standpoint, at least, it unequivocally would be an improvement. I don't want to be a part of this community anymore.


Well, I shall reply to your reply to the part I edited out after you edited out the part my edited-out part was addressing :).

> (in this case so quickly after I made the post that I wonder if he even bothered to read it all)

I think I got used to this. Sometimes you can get a few quick downvotes (or upvotes) immediately after posting, but the score usually settles to a reasonable value within an hour. I used to be nervous about downvotes, but eventually learned not to sweat it.

> HN members worry about 'becoming Reddit' without stopping to wonder if that would be an improvement.

I hate that meme here. There are a lot of subreddits that have quality discussions similar to HN. It's not fair to use Reddit as an example of a site that went downhill, because in reality it didn't.

> From a moderation and forum software standpoint, at least, it unequivocally would be an improvement.

I don't frequent Reddit enough to have an opinion on moderation policies (I'm a die-hard HN junkie), though I will second the argument about forum software. For me, Reddit's UX seems to give optimal threaded discussion experience. I wish HN would borrow at least the ability to cancel-out accidental downvote as well as an "inbox" for reply notifications (right now I'm working around it with HN Notify - I wonder how many HNers are also doing this).

> I don't want to be a part of this community anymore.

Please stay. I actually looked through your comments ( ;) ) and I see you contributing interesting viewpoints while keeping a civil tone. We need you. Good people disappearing is the very process by which a community gets destroyed.


I don't think it's hostile to productive discussion, but I do think it's hostile to common styles of forum posting. HN is heavily slanted towards punishing those who step outside the accepted community standards (which are heavily influenced by the site's suggestions). In a way, it's sort of like a stand-in for a small community enforcing good behavior. Unacceptable behavior has more consequences than a place where it can be forgotten quickly or be unknown to new people. The negative consequences are carried through in a different manner, to combat the behavior that the inherent anonymity promotes.

There is also what appears to be a purposeful set of hurdles put in place for newer users so features that are useful and common on other sites are absent, but not impossible to achieve. I suspect there's some interesting conversations behind the scenes about this. I doubt it's as simple as being elitist or not wanting to put the work in. Possibly it's engender feelings of achievement or customization from those that find solutions to the problems, which the actual purpose of promoting specific user behavior. Possibly it's to slow discussion in some cases, so as to promote reasoned discussion.

Whatever the reasoning, I find that I personally take more time with HN replies. I choose my words carefully. I temper my opinions when there's few or no references to back them up; I find the quickest way to cause misunderstandings and antagonistic replies is to be absolutist in statements that do not deserve to be, even if it's an artifact of communication and not the intent. I find the more care I put into my comments, the more useful the replies I get. Not that I won't be corrected if wrong, but that the corrections are more productive, contain more real information, and are more willing to engage in a useful discussion.

In the end, my pet theory is that HN forces a different type of discussion, and when people come in with expectations that it will be like some other discussion site, or similar to discussions sites in general on the internet, it appears close enough, but the inconsistencies eventually grate. I think there's a certain beauty in the subtlety of that, and my inability to know for sure whether it's all in my head or there really is that much care put into the system doesn't reduce it in the slightest.


I want to have it. Of course there will be externalities. There are externalities in all systems, including all current governments.


Can you heat your house with righteous indignation?


Will you need to heat your house in the first place, in 100 years?


No, but you need to heat your house a lot less if there's an economic incentive to insulate it more because fuel is less subsidized, and to design new houses to take solar heating into consideration again.


Do I want to heat my house that much if it means my children will die in poverty on a planet that went to hell? Maybe I'd want to at least switch to a different heat source?


> Do I want to heat my house that much if it means my children will die in poverty on a planet that went to hell?

Yes, you probably would, because even if you don't heat your house, it's unlikely that your individual decision will have any measurable affect on the condition of the planet in the future.


If we wanted to, if oil was so precious, we could synthesize it from other substances.

This isn't the case like with rare elements. And with most of those, even, we can recycle them indefinitely (we'll never run out of platinum).

Helium literally floats away to where we can never get it again.


Subsidies originate with government. Prices, when allowed to move freely without state interference, organically induce rationing only when necessary, and inspire the development of alternatives.

This is completely natural, rational, and built in to how markets work. No need to pray.


Scarcity has little to do with subsidy in most cases.

People who run extractive industries end up with a lot of money and are tied to specific geographical areas. Lobbying government for concessions is a high ROI activity, and always has been.

On the other side of the coin, government can break these industries too. (And does so routinely) For example, the US/Saudi mutual strategic interest now has the Saudis pumping oil as fast as possible to hurt Russia and other players. If you're a driller in North Dakota or Alberta, you're fucked.


Subsidies are not a construct of a free-market, but of a state. Which can leverage vast sums of money into such a losing game (without any "market" repercussions).


I don't understand people who use subsidies and free market in the same phrase. If there are subsidies then it's pretty clear the government has gotten involved, no? Instead of worrying about "having to pass a law to ban collecting Helium" or whatever, how about you worry about having the government not give those subsidies in the first place. Wouldn't that be easier?


I'm not talking about hypothetical perfectly free market, that neither exists nor we'd really want to have it. I'm talking about reality - businesses in bed with politicians. Those subsidies don't get granted themselves, nor they are just whims of government officials. For businesses, it's a tool like any other, to use in competing on the market.


"I'm not talking about hypothetical perfectly free market, that neither exists nor we'd really want to have it. "

Please do not speak for others.

"businesses in bed with politicians"

Isn't that a failure of the law system or, more general, "our democracy" itself? Some corrupt company in XY has no ties with you but government has (at least that's the theory). So how come government (i.e., the people there) is still getting paid by your taxes while they are clearly not acting on your behalf?

Blaming capitalism is like blaming the guy who slept with your wife instead of blaming your wife (and most probably you should also blame yourself to some extent).

"For businesses, it's a tool like any other, to use in competing on the market."

Well, for the businesses receiving a subsidy it's clearly a tool while the businesses and people paying for it much less so.

To sum up, the subsidies you talk about are neither "capitalistic" nor "democratic" so we shouldn't derive conclusions about capitalism or democracy here.

We can very well derive conclusions about the current economic system called "free market" and the current political system called "democracy" but we should agree on the definition first.


Is government regulation any less of a trust game?


In principle, government has the capability to be less stupid than the market. Companies are driven by competition, which seriously limits their choices and forces them to dig us a deeper hole. The government can, in principle, just arbitrarily decide that maybe, just maybe, we need to care about surviving for longer than next fiscal quarter or at least try and not create ourselves a hell on Earth.

Keep in mind that the golden age of capitalism was the beginning of Industrial Revolution - it took a lot of blood and subsequent regulations to get us to the point we're not slaving away 16hrs/day in a sweatshop only to die early because some "entrepreneur" sold us poison.


"In principle, government has the capability to be less stupid than the market."

It also has the capacity to be a great deal stupider, because it lacks the immediate feedback of the market spanking it.

It is not sufficient to just wave the word government at a problem. You need to do a full analysis of the incentives and demonstrate they are better. Just as raw capitalism has the obvious problems of a short-term focus, being driving by money above all else, and the issues of externalities being imposed on others, governments have the obvious problems of regulatory capture by interest groups, internal bureaucratic inefficiencies, creating high-level administrators who don't particularly care about the problem and just use the regulations as tokens in a war of turf-building, and being driven by politics above all else. And that's just the high-level table-of-contents of the problems both can have.

Governments are perfectly capable of deciding that up is down, blue is red, and don't you DARE question them or you're unpatriotic and we're going to lock you up, and they're amazingly capable of retaining these beliefs for far beyond their best-by dates because they have the power to just bull through whatever problems may arise (until they suddenly run out).

In the particular case of a supply problem it is not at all clear to me that letting the normal mechanisms of supply and demand handle it is that catastrophic... these issues happen all the time and you don't even notice. Again, let me emphasize, this happens daily. It's what the markets deal with. It's not like this is some bizarre scientific theory, it's to the level of engineering. We do it all the time.


To tack on to this, we have government subsidies of oil and ethanol production in the US, specifically to keep the price of gasoline lower than what the market would clear on its own. Government, the one that our parent post supposedly wants to regulate limited resources to save more for the future, is actively encouraging consumption faster than normal.

The only case that I'm aware of in which government regulation has successfully protected a limited resource is the fishing fields of Iceland, and they fixed that issue by creating a system of ownership--i.e. capital--where there was only the commons before.


> In principle, government has the capability to be less stupid than the market.

Only if you're applying favorable "principles" to government but not doing the same for the market. If you're treating government as a black box that acts as a perfect aggregate of the population's preferences, then yes, it can maximize economic efficiency (or probably accomplish whichever other goal you have, like egalitarianism, utilitarianism, etc.). But if you do that, it's only fair to treat the market as a black box that does exactly the same thing.

Of course, neither the government nor the market can act as a perfect aggregate of the population's preferences.

> The government can, in principle, just arbitrarily decide that maybe, just maybe, we need to care about surviving for longer than next fiscal quarter or at least try and not create ourselves a hell on Earth.

To use your example, the market can also in principle just arbitrarily decide that maybe, just maybe, we need to care about surviving for longer than next fiscal quarter or at least try and not create ourselves a hell on Earth. There's no rule in the market that says a rich capitalist, or even a group of private companies, can't just spend a bunch of resources on whatever you're talking about.


I don't think business is the answer to everything. There are a lot of ways that I think the shear size of some corporations gives them the capacity--through vertical integration--to ignore some market forces. Oligopoly is not a free market. But I think you're way off base here and are severely overstating what we should realistically expect out of government.

Even as early as Henry Ford (in positing that greater leisure time for workers was good for the business as well, as it increased per-hour productivity and created a larger consumer class), we see capitalists bucking such simplistic and reductive thinking. Also, the only modern movements towards reducing working hours lately has been from private industry as well.

I don't think there is any principle to any study of government or economics that says what you have said. Government has the capacity to enforce laws. Beyond that, what those laws are, for whose benefit they are written, that's not guaranteed. To hope that a government will adopt a certain policy for humanitarian reasons is wishful thinking.

But, if you can make an economic case for a certain policy, then it becomes much, much harder for people--either businesses or governments--to ignore.


>In principle, government has the capability to be less stupid than the market.

That may be true, but the US had a "strategic helium reserve" that we decided to sell off for no reason I can discern. I have more trust in people who are trying to maximize the amount of money they make than Congressman who can be bought and sold more easily than helium.


I at least have a theoretical way of holding my government to account. It isn't much, but it beats trying to hold a corporation to account in a world where it is not bound by laws, or barely bound by laws.


Right, which is part of the reason why I call into question trust in government. You can trust a corporation to be self-serving. If you can make an economic case for a policy, then all else being equal, the firms that adopt that policy will eat the lunch of the firms that do not. But you can't trust a government to protect the best interests of the people. I think they've demonstrated on a regular basis that they generally won't.

What is more often the case: a regulation coming into form to protect the consumer from the evils of corporations, or that regulation actually forming to protect an entrenched corporation against competitors?

We, as a society, all make up the market. When you put a monopoly power in control over it--i.e. a government--you open the door to abuse of that power, as there is no alternative. You create a single point of failure for society.


What is your theoretical way of holding your government to account? If your answer is voting, I would ask why you think your single vote influences an election more than your individual choice whether to patronize a business.



At the end of the day we have to count on the market, but I still hate that the helium reserve has depressed the price so much that we are just throwing away the helium in natural gas wells.


One part of this I've never understood: I'm often told that I shouldn't buy or enjoy helium balloons, as it's a waste of important helium. But such a balloon costs almost nothing, if helium is so scarce and so important, shouldn't that be reflected in the price?

At least that's how stocks work. If something will be in high demand/price in the future, it will shift and be in high demand now.


>if helium is so scarce and so important, shouldn't that be reflected in the price? //

It's like other "mined" raw materials.

Coal takes millions of years to form, requires large quantities of vegetation/animal life and large areas of land. If you charged based on replacement cost then coal prices would be effectively infinite.

As with helium. Helium doesn't bond with other atoms to make heavier molecules and so eventually leaks from the atmosphere after release. In order to recover a supply you're going to need to capture it from radioactive decay or do extraterrestrial mining or some similar high cost activity. So it's [comparatively] an infinite replacement cost. However, it's released as a by-product and we currently have enough. When we run out of natural gas sources we'll run out of our main He source too and using helium will become extremely expensive. Even at that point we'll still not be paying the "replacement" cost, just the cost of extracting from more expensive sources.

We should be, as a race, preserving helium but there is currently no economic incentive, the incentive lies in the future when our current round of magnates and politicians will likely be dead.


For what it's worth, the cost of a cylinder of Helium has risen exponentially in the past few years.

One of my first jobs was working in a welding supply shop, and I was astonished to find out that a '100lb' cylinder (they're filled by weight/pressure) of helium was nearly $200. As a comparison, a '100lb'of propane was only about $40.


So is this a good investment? Just go buy a bunch of helium tanks and keep them in my basement as a gift to my kids 25 years later?

Are speculators already doing this, driving up the price?


My hunch is that you'll lose a lot of your investment over 25 years, without spending more on the storage strategy.


I suppose?

Most of the standard cylinders are fairly secure.

A lot of the time I spent during my job there was preparing cylinders for testing, to assure that they were pressure-secure and airtight. Neat stuff, and a TON of practical physics went into everyday things there. :)


100lb of helium is a LOT more helium, no?


by what measure? 100lb of helium is exactly the same by weight as a 100lb of propane. By volume, in a cylinder, it is approximately the same (I believe).

By number of atoms, it is much more (a factor of 10 or so).


Weight is the same, but because the number of atoms is so much higher isn't the pressure a lot higher? PV=nRT and all that?

I presume the leakage loss in storage also raises the price of Helium. People buy propane just-in-case knowing they can store it forever while helium is a "buy it before you use it" kind of thing.


The U.S. government is selling large quantities of helium at below market prices, apparently (though I'm not sure what a below market price is...if they are willing to keep selling at that price doesn't it become the market price?).


According to the article, this was stopped.


The helium used in balloons is usually old recycled helium called "balloon air" - http://science.slashdot.org/story/12/09/23/0518247/scientist...


That statement by the chairman of the Balloon Association doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Helium is an inert gas. Recycled helium is just as good as new helium. We extracted it from natural gas, and we can just as well extract it from "balloon air."


It's more a question of purity. If the gas pumped into balloons is actually only 99% helium and 1% miscellaneous gasses then that is not a problem. In many other applications that would make the gas unusable.


Yes but it wasn't pure when we first pumped it out of the ground, either. I'd bet natural gas has a lower percentage helium than "balloon air." We are able to purify helium.


I expect the difference is that when extracting helium from natural gas, the volumes are huge and therefore the purification process is economically feasible.

Trying to do the same for small amounts of helium collected here and there is possible but not economically feasible. It makes more sense to use it as balloon gas.


It costs energy to do that, which is reflected in the lower price of the impure balloon air, no?


It also costs energy to extract helium from natural gas. If running out of helium is our concern, then the balloon air is a source of helium we can exploit just as well as natural gas. It's not like we have helium wells pulling pure helium out of the ground.


Indeed, as a diver we need medical grade, or better, helium. The helium you get for balloons is industrial waste, it is unusable for anything else.


Same thing with Tuna - why is it still so cheap to buy a can of Tuna?


"Markets" only work when there is a seller, and neither helium nor tuna have a seller.

The price of Tuna is set of "how expensive is it to produce a can of tuna" rather than "how many tuna are left in the ocean". In fact, the lower the production cost of tuna fishing, the higher the risk that we empty the ocean of all the tuna.

It's really a problem of the Tragedy of the commons. There is no cost of tuna in the ocean, except the cost of fishing it. So it's a commons, and it will be overexploited.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons

also: be sure to understand http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collapse_of_the_Atlantic_northw...


Tuna from the ocean at large may be a "commons", sure, but helium comes from natural gas deposits, which tend to be in areas where one nation or another claims exclusive rights to said deposits, treats them like property, and seeks to maximize the value they can extract from them (while still competing with other resource-holders in a market).


If those harvesting tuna had to meet the full cost, ie they had to replace the tuna, then tuna would be more expensive. The price doesn't reflect the cost because the planet/ecosystem is being robbed.

If I sell fruit but I get it by stealing it from a neighbour then I'll be able to afford to sell the fruit at a far lower cost than the cost of manufacture and still get a profit.


Fishing, at a low enough volume, it is sustainable, which humans have been doing for dozens of millennia.

The problem comes when the threshold is reached and passed. That is specifically the tragedy of the commons. It's a fractal problem - i.e., even if one country fixes the issue through regulation/taxes/prohibition, another country may still overfish a shared body of water.

The "full cost" wouldn't need to be replacing each fish caught. It would be a fee/tax to ensure a sustainable fish population - this could still result a reasonable market for fish.


>The "full cost" wouldn't need to be replacing each fish caught. It would be a fee/tax to ensure a sustainable fish population - this could still result a reasonable market for fish. //

In the past we fished at sustainable levels because we were incapable of fishing to extinction. WWF (http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/blue_planet/problems/pr...) say we're taking 2-3 times the volume of fish from the oceans as is sustainable.


Partly because 59% of the tuna Americans eat isn't actually tuna: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/02/59-of-th...


Wow! They're using escolar (the ex-lax fish) in place of albacore (white) tuna!

http://www.thekitchn.com/use-caution-when-eating-escola-6660...

It really seems like the FDA or FTC should be able to regulate that a little bit.


There are lots of different types of tuna, some much more expensive than others. The tuna people talk about that is running out and that is used for things like high end sushi is Bluefin tuna which is very expensive. The stuff you get in cheap cans is either Skipjack tuna or Bonito (which are not technically tuna fish) both of which are cheap and relatively plentiful.


AFAIK just big tuna is expensive, like a large whole fish. What you get in the cans are small tuna.


One thing to keep in mind is that the helium used for balloons is a fairly small amount of helium compared to say, an MRI machine, in the same way a dripping faucet is way less water than a garden hose. But if you leave the dripping faucet on long enough, your water bill is going to go up.


Rare earth metals were talked about in a similar manner very recently. Other sources were found, and as a result, the alarm eased. One thing about rare earth metals is that they can be a byproduct of metal production, but this process is often ignored because the cost of the additional step can be more expensive than the resulting output.

One thing people seem to not know is that helium is a common discarded byproduct of oil extraction. Nuclear fission in the earth's core produces it, and it gathers in porous underground oil reservoirs. I'd bet my life that as prices of helium go up, these deposits get more attention paid to them.

I'm not convinced that a shortage of helium will be a crisis.


Rare earth metals are not that rare. Most of them are about as abundant as copper. The problem is their extraction. While copper is present in relative high concentration in sulfide ores that are easy to extract, rare earths are usually present in dilute concentration in many rocks, making it less economical to extract, and is hard to extract even when there is a significant portion of it, leaving behind much toxic chemicals. Furthermore, the rare earths are very similar to each other and often present together, which makes it hard to separate them. In addition, such ores often contain thorium and its decay products, which makes tailings radioactive.

The shortage of rare earths has been because it has been uneconomical to extract with any sort of environmental regulation in place. China has almost none of them and has obtained a near monopoly for that reason. Here the "there is no shortage ever" arguments from economists make sense. For helium, the situation is different. The helium that is there is relatively easy to extract (it is a certain percentage in some natural gas fields), but once it is gone it is gone forever.


Exactly. It's hard to grasp, but most other elements have gradual scaling solutions, i.e. worst case we have to resort to some more expansive extraction method. With helium this scaling is abrupt: reserves become orders of magnitude more expansive. It makes total sense to let the market create a gradual scaling of prices in anticipation for depletion.

Basically all other elements we can do some recycling and recapturing somehow; once leaked helium is just gone forever.


> Nuclear fission in the earth's core produces [Helium]

This is quite an interesting hypothesis for those interested ...

Deep-Earth reactor: Nuclear fission, helium, and the geomagnetic field

http://www.pnas.org/content/98/20/11085.full


To quote my own answer on that question:

No: we will never run out of helium, it's just a question of price (which is likely to go up).

There is a method of actually producing helium: as a product of nuclear decay, smaller quantities of helium (He) could be made in nuclear power plants.

Nevertheless, as @ghshepard says, in the short and medium-term supply will simply come from other natural gas fields if/when the price goes up.

The Helium-scarcity misunderstanding is the same as with almost every other historical feared resource depletion. At current prices and production methods, supply is finite, but at higher price points, new production methods become economically viable.

A higher helium price means two things: reduced demand by shifting to substitutes and increased production by using more expensive production technologies (and of course, if the price goes up more people will try to innovate cheaper solutions).

Today helium is practically free. While we would never run out of Helium, it is not unlikely that at some point prices may go up for a while. That, however, is not really such a big deal.

http://www.quora.com/Are-we-really-running-out-of-helium/ans...


Good ol' Julian Simon to the rescue, again. We will always come up with some alternative.

"We're running out of X" is always louder than "We've found another way to extract it, sound the alarms again in forty years." Then we'll come up with some other method, and they'll set back the Malthus Doom Date by another forty years. And eventually, someone will come up with a completely different alternative that doesn't use it at all, and a previously vital resource will only have niche applications.

Of course, in some cases, the alternative might require a lot of hardship. I'm sure we'd get by if gasoline was 20 bucks a gallon. It would suck, and all of us would be driving motor scooters and riding bicycles to work, but we would get by.


You can tell an american when oil crisis implies scooters not public transport.


Unfortunately, the vast distances required make public transport limited in effectiveness in the US. They're great in the cities, but the very low population density outside of the cities means that it's not going to do very well there.

When I lived in Arizona, I was driving about 50 kilometers per day. There was no bus or train, as there just weren't enough passengers to make it worth building. Driving was the only option unless I was going to bike 50 kilometers per day in the heat.

Here in Oregon, there are bus routes, but it would take me more than an hour to get to work on the bus. By car, it's about ten minutes. I could definitely bike to work, but it rains a lot here. :)

Incidentally, a huge hike in gas prices would probably force a lot of people to move to the cities. They'll need public transport to get to work if they can't drive. But seeing as how city living is so expensive, they'll probably keep driving (smaller cars and motor scooters) for as long as they can.


Norway has a population density 1/2 of the US, yet public transport works well for large proportions of journeys even in the rural districts.

For comparison, Norway is larger than Arizona, with a smaller population (or a bit larger than New Mexico and a bit smaller than Montana, with a much higher population than those two - so clearly you do have some areas that truly are rural enough for public transport to be hard to do right; then again, California is not that much larger, and most of California still has an atrocious public transit system...).

Yes, there certainly are areas where you can't really get by without a car, in Norway, so it's not like I'm expecting public transport to be viable everywhere in Arizona either. But in Norway that's because very few people live there. Just like the US low overall population density is largely down to vast practically empty areas. "Nobody" cares if there's no public transport in the middle of Alaska, or in the rural parts of states like New Mexico and Montana that have low population density to start with, and are pretty much "empty" outside a few cities.

And oil is not the explanation - most of Norways public transport system predates the oil exploration, and was built at a time when Norway was far less wealthy than the US.

The ten lowest density US states have lower average population density than Norway, but they "only" house about 12 million people. And even for the rest of the country, most of the low density states still have higher density clusters. The top ten states house about 170 million people, with an aggregate population density of around 200 per square mile - far above places like Norway.

It other words: Distance is an excuse. It's down to politics and a culture centered around the car.

Sure, public transport will never cover 100% of journeys, but that's not the point.


I think you hit the nail on the head about being cenetered around the car. Cities are built at "car-scale" where every store has a massive parking lot (usually the size of 5-6 soccer pitches) directly infront of the building. It's usually outright hostile to pedestrians. Unfortunately this is a byproduct of our cities being built in the age of the Automobile and not in 1000AD like Oslo.

Unfortunately the only way to fix it would be to have city ordinances which specify parking maximum and maximum offset from the street for a building.


Not doubting the problems of american geography: though esp. the historical choices about how urbanization should proceed which have made most of the problems, rather than anything inherent about the size of the country - I can easily get across Europe on public transport at "american" distances.

The point was it was amusing to see someone suggest that private transport was the essential point of oil, so that if prices increased, it would just mean worse private transport. When of course, at those levels, it would mean the end of wide-spread private transportation as such (and the end of american urbanization as its currently known).


I think this is largely a canard. Public transportation networks were dismantled in the US in favor of highways, and it's not as though maintaining roads is free.


Pretty sure the amount of helium we could get from nuclear reactions would be quite small. I haven't run the numbers for fission, but I did for fusion, and the helium that would be produced even if the whole world ran on fusion came out to a tiny fraction of our current usage.

It's true that we won't run out completely, but reducing the supply by orders of magnitude could well be a big deal. We'll have plenty for a while from natural gas, but at some point we're going to have to stop extracting all that fossil fuel, and that will interfere with helium production too.


I wonder if one could extract the helium produced by our otherwise unusable fission waste?


...And conservation/re-use. Right now, scientists just let the stuff blow off into the atmosphere during experiments because it's basically free. Increase the price, and it's worth modifying the experiments to reuse their Helium.


For those interested in helium's price history, cost per thousand cubic feet, 1999 - 2011 rose from $42 to $160, or 3.8x.

http://www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/helium...


This is one of those questions I use to see if sites know how to research a topic. We have proven reserves to last at current consumption rates for 300 years. A little googling leads you to the facts, which is that we have plenty of helium to last a long, long time. A plant is coming online that will provide nearly the entire planets consumption of helium for then next 50 years. And this is just with places where we know we can get helium out of the earth. We put helium in balloons because it is so cheap because of abundance. It is almost as bad as when I hear cries of the "coming phosphorus shortage".


As an active scuba diver I feel sort of bad about breathing helium knowing that it's a non-renewable resource. For a single dive in the 50m depth range I'll typically use something like 1000l of He (as measured at standard temperature and pressure). The retail price has gone up by a factor of 3 in the past several years so while it's still somewhat affordable we clearly won't be able to continue doing open-circuit technical diving indefinitely. Some of my friends have switched to closed-circuit rebreathers that use very little helium but those are far more dangerous.


Rebreathers are a lot safer these days, esp. units like the Sentinel which have extensive self tests.


There are still several rebreather failure modes due to user error or equipment failure which can kill the user and won't necessarily be detectable by a self test. So although rebreathers can be made somewhat safer they will never be as safe as open circuit for sport diving. At least with OC gear, if anything goes wrong the problem is hard to miss and the solution is always simple.


On the Sentinel you can switch to the BOV in a second, unless you're an alpinist :-)


It's tough to switch if you're already unconscious due to hypoxia. You really can't notice the onset of hypoxia fast enough to fix the problem. In theory that shouldn't happen if the diver sets up the gear correctly and pays attention to the alarms, but in practice sometimes divers make mistakes and end up dead.

There was an incident in my area several years ago where a rebreather diver missed a step in his pre-dive checks and jumped off the boat with his oxygen valve off. By the time he swam to the anchor line he had consumed most of the oxygen in the loop (while probably not noticing the alarms), passed out, and drowned. That was user error but the fact remains that if he had been using open circuit gear, a simple error like jumping off the boat with a closed tank valve almost certainly wouldn't have killed him.


You can jump in on OC valves off and nothing in your BC and sink like a stone...


No you will not sink anything like a stone as long as you have a properly balanced rig set for neutral buoyancy with empty tanks. Negative buoyancy at the start of an ocean dive is around 11kg at most. The problem will be obvious and unless you totally panic you can swim back to the boat, or reach around and turn on a valve. You won't just suddenly pass out, like what can happen if you make a series of bad user errors with a rebreather.


The divers who can do valve drills, are not the ones making this kind of mistake :-)


Correct me if I'm wrong but are not hydrogen and helium two of the most abundant elements in the galaxy? If we ever were to let it all float into outer space (if that's even possible) by then couldn't we just harvest it in space? I know that's by no means cost effective with today's technology but we're talking decades before we might actually run out right.


Hydrogen has a high affinity for bonding with other elements. Most notably water (H2O) and in varying ratios, with carbon (hydrocarbons). Both water and hydrocarbons, along with other forms, are heavy enough to not escape from Earth's gravitational pull at a high rate (though some estimates suggest that a large fraction of Earth's original water has been lost to space).

Helium is on of the noble gasses -- they either do not react or react only very reluctantly with other elements.

Combined with helium's low molecular weight, and since gaseous helium is atomic helium, free helium tends to escape into space.

And as Douglas Adams noted: Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the drug store, but that's just peanuts to space.

There's little chance that pure gold could be profitably recovered from space. Let alone helium.


Similar concerns were raised when China embargoed rare metals. In reality, the industry adapted smoothly and it's not the topic anymore.

And yes, strictly per economic theory (which is very practical) we will never run out of Helium. Just the price will rise up to the point when alternatives (and a research into) will became economical.


On a tour at CERN I was told that 1/3 of the worlds helium is 'stored' and used at CERN. Can anyone confirm this?


In terms of total helium in circulation at any point - this isn't an unreasonable assertion. They use vast quantities of the stuff to keep superconducting magnets and power transmission lines at operational temperatures, and the LHC is far from being the only experiment at CERN....

But on further examination...

helium is about 0.1785g/l 1 cubic foot = 28.317 litres So 1 cf. of He has a mass of ~5.05g

Cern use 120 metric tons of He in the LHC beam tube magnets alone (http://home.web.cern.ch/about/engineering/cryogenics-low-tem... ), so let's say 200 tons at all of CERN, as the beam tube magnets are a pretty major application, and the other accelerators (PS/SPS/etc.) are considerably smaller and slower and have less intensive requirements, and other experiments altogether probably use a fair, but not crazy amount.

So... 200 tons of helium equates to 200000000/5.05 = 39.6 million cubic feet, at STP.

So, lots and lots of helium, but not 1/3 of the world's supply.

Oh, fun fact - that amount of helium would be enough to lift 1100 tonnes of payload from the ground... about two fully laden 747s.


I guess we can find most of our helium near the top of our atmosphere :)


Sounds like we better keep using it for party balloons.


Betteridge's law holds.


For the last time, you idiot: it's not hydrogen, it's HELIUM!

And what about that are you still not getting, exactly?

Well, obviously the core concept, Lana!


I purchased about 30 helium-filled balloons for my 3-year old's birthday party for about $10.

So I would say that no, we're not running out of helium, by any meaningful definition of "running out".


I do some work for a helium supplier, and yes, yes we are. Some problems were averted by not shutting off the helium reserve a year or so ago, but the industry is definitely starting to face the question of what happens when helium supplies become limited.

Kids balloons aren't a particularly high demand use.


Maybe not on a balloon cost metric, its probably talking about industrial/scientific processes.


400 years ago, somebody went on a hunting trip and killed a bunch of dodo birds. What you're saying is kind of similar to that guy saying, "Eh, I killed 30 of the beasts and nobody tried to stop me. So I would say that no, the dodo is not in danger of extinction."


The passenger pigeon would be an even better example. To quote Wikipedia, "The species went from being one of the most abundant birds in the world during the 19th century to extinction early in the 20th century."


Offtopic

This post is a proof that the right time of a post is crucial to popularity. I posted the same link ( actually I'm not sure how HN passed this one through ) a couple of months ago [1] and it was not as popular ;)

1: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8884999


A good example on how bad quora is.

The top current answer is basically

> there is no way to cheaply make more

Which applies to anything in existence, everything will run out, hence a pointless waste of time statement that moronic philosophers pull out when they are ignorant on the topic.

Later links are more interesting, like -

http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2012/08/27/what-grea...


Are you denying the existence of any distinction between renewable and non-renewable resources, or what?


It's a tempting thing, given the sun will eventually burn out.


Yeah, OK, but the linked piece is not arguing that we're in danger of running out of helium in thousands of years.




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