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Helium, Briefly Revisited

September 29, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Sigh.  Obviously, I've fallen off the keeping-the-website-updated wagon.  But is anybody surpised?  Of course not.  It's not like there isn't precedent. 

Lots of crazy things going on in my life right now, including some incredibly exciting stuff.  But I can't talk about most of it yet.  So I won't.  Yet.  Suffice it to say that I'm going to be VERY BUSY for the medium-term future.  Mostly in a very good way—I'm deliriously happy.

In the meantime, though, helium is back in the news this week.

I wrote three blog posts about helium early last year.  I'm still concerned about the depletion of Earth's helium reserves; I just don't rant about it every day. 

The news piece I linked to above (this one) briefly sketches in the situation with the Strategic Helium Reserve.  I'm a little disappointed, though, that it didn't touch on the larger-scale problems inherent in the vastly unwise decision to sell off the contents of the reserve.  The fluctuation in helium prices is a short-term problem.  A much longer term problem will be the complete extinction of helium on this planet, which is effectively what will happen if current trends continue.  Conceivably within the lifetimes of the people reading this (assuming there are any). 

So, it's not a bad introduction to the situation.  (The audio link is a bit more comprehensive than the accompanying text.)  Just don't read the comments, because they're full of brain-exploding ignorance.  As I worked out in a fair bit of detail in my series of posts last year, helium really, truly, is not renewable.  (Unless you're willing to wait a billion years for it to build up again.)  Anybody who insists otherwise is an ignorant fool.



Sara G. September 30, 2012 at 12:40 pm
Why does no one ever want to listen to her prognostications of imminent but avoidable doom?
MrConclusion September 30, 2012 at 8:27 pm
This impending helium problem is a little disgusting. The only thing that's making me feel hopeful is that fact that I'm seeing it discussed here, and elsewhere, more then ever before. Years ago I got involved with scuba diving. Nowadays you'll find many "serious" recreational dives to 100-250 foot depth. At those pressures nitrogen does exciting things to the nervous system so helium is added to the breathing mixture. It's not unusual to breathe 100+ cubic feet of high-purity helium on a dive. So far so hoopy, right? This isn't helium-3 just normal flavor. But after a few discussions with gas experts I found a consensus, at that time anyway. in their opinion the dirty little secret was that although helium-blend was far more expensive more than air, that high price was far lower than the real value of the helium. Apparently subsidies come heavily into play. One guy whose opinion I respect thinks that a normal party balloon's helium may be worth 50 bucks. Made me feel odd to breathe it, knowing that every exhale sends irreplaceable helium beyond further use. So to Ian and others of a scientific mind, do you believe that the (mis)use of non-exotic helium isotopes plays a role in the problem? Can we dump it by the blimp-full or is every theme park balloon a real loss? Also, I'm dying to know these exciting things Ian can't talk about yet. The fun stuff is always off the table, sigh.
Steve Halter October 1, 2012 at 8:56 am
Yeah, it is good that they mention that there is a problem, but the article pretty much missed the real problem. Which is, as you say, that the Helium will be gone eventually. Then the price will "fluctuate" to infinite. At least until we go into space mining. Glad to hear you are deliriously happy and looking forward to the reasons.
Ian October 18, 2012 at 9:52 pm
Sara G: Hello! (Answer: Because Cassandra is such a downer.) MrConclusion: It is a really disgusting problem -- the shortsightedness of the whole thing turns my stomach. Maybe, as you say, we can see some glimmers of hope in the fact that people are starting to discuss the problem. I still worry, though. I find it incredibly interesting that diving experts (a use for helium that I never even encountered when studying the problem on my own!) know the price of a helium mixture is far below the actual value of the helium. I've heard that figure of $50 for a single party balloon elsewhere, too. The casual use of regular, non-exotic helium isotopes is a major part of the problem, no question about it. Felix Baumgartner's supersonic skydive was absolutely awesome, but the balloon he used a LOT of helium that we'll never see again. Steve: Yes indeed, the fluctuations will approach infinity over time. That's a good way to put it! At least, as you say, until we start space mining. Maybe we can skim helium from the atmospheres of gas giants?
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