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Brief Update on "Peak Helium"

May 9, 2011 at 4:34 pm

A few months ago, I wrote three posts about the diminishment of Earth's helium reserves.  This month's issue of Physics Today has an update on the situation for He-3.

There's some moderately good news, although I think the long-term forecast is still pretty iffy.

According to a brief piece in the May 2011 issue of Physics Today (everybody's favorite periodical, I'm sure), supplies of He-3 are once again opening up to researchers in the United States, owing to some alleviation of the bottleneck previously caused by the element's crucial role in national-security-related neutron detection technologies.  The price of He-3 continues to be prohibitively high for researchers overseas, however, and that's a problem.

The modest alleviation of the supply problem came about after an interagency panel was formed in 2009 to control disbursements of He-3 resources.  Previously, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office had sucked down about 60,000 liters of He-3 for neutron detectors installed at border crossings and ports.  (The entire US reserve of He-3 right now is probably less than 40,000 liters, so the DNDO has consumed a large chunk of the world's supply of He-3.)

Physics Today states that the increased oversight of the He-3 distribution shouild extend the lifetime of the US stockpile to perhaps 2018.  The problem is that extraction of He-3 (a byproduct of tritium decay; see my earlier posts for details) from various sources in the nuclear weapons complex produces at most 10,000 liters of He-3 a year, but yearly demand for the element might be as high as 15,000 liters.  So the world supply will continue to run a deficit over production for the foreseeable future.

This might be alleviated, slightly, by the extraction of He-3 from storage beds at Savannah River (part of the Department of Energy complex, run by the National Nuclear Security Agency).  Another short-term supply might come from a series of reactors in Canada.  (Some projections put the total available supply of He-3 from these CANDU reactors at over 100,000 liters, after separation and extraction.)

Extracting the helium from the Savannah River site isn't cheap, so this has had an effect on the market price of He-3.  Last year, it was $300-$400/liter for US customers.  (Remember that that United States DOE more or less controls the world's supply of He-3, because basically all He-3 is a byproduct of tritium decay.  DOE has a lot of tritium.)  Now it's closer to $600/liter for government uses or federally sponsored research, and $1000/liter for commercial use. 

That's all for domestic consumers.  Non-US consumers have little access to the US supplies.  Which means prices are higher and the supplies much more scarce.  Russia is the world's only other major supplier of He-3 (thanks to the arms race) but pricing and availability information is difficult to obtain.  Smaller intermediate suppliers in Europe are charging between £1500 and £3000/liter, though this supply comes from Russia.

In theory, China ought to have significant supplies of He-3, too.  Whether the technology is in place to separate/extract it, and whether the Chinese would choose to sell excess supply on the world market, are unknowns.

One silver lining, though, is that the supply bottleneck really is spurring R&D into new neutron-detection technologies that don't rely on such a scarce resource.  Advancements in this area have been fairly rapid in the past couple of years.


Steve Halter May 10, 2011 at 12:12 am
How about the bombardment of lithium-6 with neutrons? This would produce tritium which would decay to 3-He. Of course, you would have to produce a lot of tritium.
YetiStomper May 10, 2011 at 9:10 am
Not. Good. Where can I buy Helium Futures?
Ian May 10, 2011 at 9:50 am
The good thing about He-3, as you point out, is that it can be made, albeit with some difficulty. Unlike He-4, which isn't so amenable to "manufacturing" methods. So it could be done, maybe even as you suggest via lithium. It's just a question of scale and time, waiting for enough He-3 to accumulate via decay to make it feasible to extract.
Ian May 10, 2011 at 9:53 am
If you're looking to invest, I'd be more than happy to handle your investments for you. I'm not one of those traditional "legacy" investment firms with antiquated "quarterly reports" and "portfolio prospectuses" and a "license".
Steve Halter May 10, 2011 at 10:23 am
So, it's good that alternatives are being explored. Have you seen any serious sign of trying to actually look into producing extra He-3? We're kinda screwed in the short term. How about the middle to mid-long?
Ian May 10, 2011 at 12:22 pm
Will we add He-3 production capacity in the future, to stave off depletion of the resource? I wish I knew the answer. :) Part of it might depend on how much of the technological burden can be shifted to other elements-- neutron detection technologies using boron, for instance. But there is some very important basic-science research that can only be done with He-3, and some medical imaging applications that can only be done safely for some patients (infants) using He-3. The problem (as I see it, as an uninvolved and uninformed layman) is that physical He-3 production within reasonable timescales (~several years to a decade) in useful quantities is a fairly big job, and complicated, because it requires generating or handling considerable amounts of radioactive material. I can imagine it might be a licensing nightmare for a private enterprise. So something like this might be outside the scope of private industry or research-- it's really something that the nuclear weapons complex has done as a byproduct for decades. I wouldn't say it's something only a government could do, but right now they're the only game in town. So, if national security applications reduce their demand for He-3, ironically enough, that might also reduce the chances of decent new production in the near-term future. But that's all just a guess...
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