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Peak Helium (Part 2 of 3)

February 9, 2011 at 10:41 am

This is the second of three posts on the topic of helium, and the looming shortage of this unique and wonderful element.  (I say looming with regard to the most common isotope of helium-4 (4He).  But critical shortages have been hitting supplies of a rare helium isotope, helium-3 (3He), for several years now.  More on that below.  Also, I'm dispensing with superscripts because I think they look ugly on the blog.)

The previous post, Part 1, tried to give some explanation as to why helium is a nonrenewable resource.  The next post, Part 3, will try to make the case that helium is extremely valuable for science and industry.  In this post, below the cut, I'll try to come to a layman's understanding of the world's helium markets, and why they've become dangerously unstable in the past 15 years or so.

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about the origin of the Earth's 4He reserves.   It turns out virtually all the 4He on earth accumulated very slowly, over geological timescales, through the action of radioactive alpha decay of heavy elements in the earth's crust. 

That covers about 4 billions years of backstory.  Or, as writers sometimes call it, the "deep backstory".  But now let's fast forward a few billion years, to World War I.

The United States Federal Helium Reserve, or, The Country That Controls Blimp Power Controls The World!

In the heady days between World War I and the Hindenburg disaster, it seemed the world stood on the cusp of a gleaming, chromium-plated future, and that this golden age was soon to arrive in an airship.  Blimps and zeppelins were the wave of the future.  Skyscrapers of that era were built with docking masts and embarkation lounges for the inevitable surge in zeppelin traffic.  (The Empire State Building was built with such a mast, which is still visible today.)   Balloons had already shown use as valuable observation platforms in the First World War (and before that, in the American Civil War).

Naturally, then, the future of warfare was the War Blimp.  (Apparently necessary in case any dirty foreigners tried to lay their grubby paws on that gilded future.)  But keeping a fleet of ponderous, tumescent death machines ready to fling fiery death at a moment's notice meant ensuring a stable stockpile of lifting gas.  There are basically two candidates for that lifting gas: hydrogen and helium.  Hydrogen has the benefit of being readily available everywhere; it has the drawback of potentially heaping fiery death upon the airship crew, rather than one's enemies.  Helium isn't quite so persnickety, but it's also much rarer.  But it turns out the United States has (or had; see below) an unusually rich supply of the same.   It so happens the geological alchemy that leads to large pockets of helium as a byproduct of radioactivity also tends to funnel the helium toward natural gas deposits.  Large gas deposits can contain up several percent helium.  And the gas deposits in the Texas panhandle as well as parts of Oklahoma and Kansas are unusually rich in helium.  (Although, in more recent decades, newer gas fields have proven poor sources of helium, such as the shale formations of Pennsylvania and Texas.)

So, around 1925 or so, the Federal Helium Reserve was created.  The FHR is a pipeline network across the gas fields of southwestern Kansas, the Oklahoma panhandle, and northern Texas, connected to a natural geological formation that serves as a storage dome for "crude' helium.  The FHR has a storage capacity of tens of billions of cubic feet of 4He.  (Practically everything you could want to know about the Federal Helium Reserve, and the Bureau of Land Management's control of same, can be found in this tome.  It's actually pretty interesting reading.  (Although at least one paper within the collection states that the Federal Helium Reserve was created in the 1960s, as a response to Cold War needs.  I don't believe this is correct; according to the BLM's website, linked above, as well as most other sources, the FHR dates to 1925.  And it played a role in the Space Race going back at least to the 1950s.))

The Federal Government was quite concerned about helium reserves back then.  I've heard it alleged, though I can't prove this, that the reason European powers resorted to hydrogen gas for the lifting power of their airships was precisely because US hoarding made it impossible to obtain helium in industrial quantities.   Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Weimar Republic!

Over the subsequent decades, helium found many, many more uses beyond airship warfare.  But for many years, demand remained steady, and by the 1970s the FHR represented a 50-year supply of helium at then-current levels of demand.  For this reason, the government stopped buying and storying helium.  And the system was stable well into the 1990s.

Naturally, some (frankly ignorant) people have derided the FHR because they somehow believe its sole purpose, to this day, is as a resource depot for nonexistent war blimps.  This idiotic criticism is founded on the unstated but glaring assumption that helium isn't useful for anything aside from blimps.  (I'm sure the irony is lost on such clowns when they or their loved ones go in for an MRI scan, on a machine that relies upon cryogenically cooled magnets to function.  Ignorance is bliss, I guess.  But I'll talk more about the wonders of helium, in both its flavors, in Part 3.)  I'm only speculating here, but I can't help but wonder if this shortsighted attitude was one of the factors leading to the spectacularly poor decision that prompted this series of posts in the first place.

But The War Blimps Worked Out So Well.  Why The Crisis?

So if everything was hunky-dory well into the 1990s, what happened?

The Helium Privatization Act of 1996 happened, that's what.

Since I'm not an economist, just a caveman, I'll do my best to try to understand what happened next.  But please bear in mind I'm out of my element. (Har, har.  Element!  I kill me.)  


By the mid-90s, the FHR was running a deficit on the order of $1.6 billion or so,  because the market price for helium sold off by the FHR was too low to recoup the operational costs of the reserve.  As a cost-saving measure (and a hilariously shortsighted one, in my not so humble opinion) the above piece of legislation stipulated that the surplus helium had to be sold off in its entirety by 2015. 

Around this time, the National Academies embarked on a multi-year study, published in 2000, titled The Impact of Selling the Federal Helium Reserve.  The study concluded that the selloff could be accomplished without major upheaval to the world helium market, and that a surplus of helium supply over demand would continue into the forseeable future.  But in order to draw these conclusion, the authors of the study assumed worldwide demand for helium would remain constant.

And that's a problem.  Because in order to ensure that the FHR is completely depleted by 2015, the government started selling its surplus helium (a significant fraction of the entire world's supply of helium) well below its market value as set by rarity, refining, and shipping costs.  Not to put too fine a point on it, the US Federal Government has been hosting a fire sale of a rare and nonrenewable resource—Everything must go!  No price too low!  We'll entertain any offer!—for the past 15 years.  The immediate effect of which being that the actual market price of 4He fell to match the FHR price.  Helium became very cheap.  And, not surprisingly, demand for helium skyrocketed.

Which more or less screwed the helium market.  And made a mockery of the NAS study justifying the 1996 privatization maneuver.

But I'm just a caveman, so don't take my word for it.  A concise and informative summary of the current state of the helium market can be found here.  The key statement, from my point of view, is this line from a January 2010 study by the National Research Council:

The pricing mechanism used by BLM reflects the costs of crude helium (as determined by the 1996 Act), not the value of the helium. The best data available to the committee indicate that since approximately 2007, the BLM price for crude helium is now the average price at which privately-owned crude helium was sold between private parties and in effect, BLM, rather than market forces, is setting the price for crude helium.

The NRC study also notes this situation may

[l]ead to inaccurate market signals, bringing about increased consumption and thereby acceleration in the depletion of the Federal Helium Reserve [and] [r]etard efforts to develop alternative sources of helium.

All fine and good, and correct, except that the NRC finally officially recognized this problem a decade too late to stop it.  The pricing problem hit long before 2007.  The change in demand happened quickly.

Which isn't to say that some members of the original study committee weren't wary from the start.  Robert Richardson, a physicist who shares a Nobel Prize for research on (what else?) helium, has been warning about the potential for a helium shortage for decades.  More recently, he's been working to bring more attention to this problem.  This past June, at the 60th Lindau Meeting of Nobel Laureates, he spoke eloquently on the Looming World Shortage of Helium.  Richardson is one of the world's leading experts on helium.  He said, in part:

That which God has taken 4.7 billion years to create will be dissipated in a little more than 100 years... One generation doesn't have the right to determine availability forever. 

And yet that's effectively what the Federal Government did in 1996.  All to try to recoup $1.6 billion in debt over 20 years.  Which, if you compare this to Federal spending patterns since 2001, is absolutely insane.

Meanwhile, The World's Supply of 3He Evaporates In A Puff Of Old Nobel Prize Memories

The preceding discussion pertains to 4He.  Throughout this post and the last, I've given short shrift to 3He, although I've alluded to it a couple of times.  This isotope is much rarer than its heavier cousin; according to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, it accounts for less than 1.4 parts per million of helium (the rest being in the form of 4He).

While the preceding discussion of the Federal Helium Reserve doesn't apply (much) to 3He, it turns out that this isotope is already undergoing a shortage crisis.  According to the June 2010 issue of Physics Today, the price of 1 liter of 3He has increased from approximately $100 in 2009 to $1000-$2000 today.  Much of the world's 3He supply comes indirectly from the United States Department of Energy, which in the past was a major creator and user of tritium.  (As noted in the previous post, 3He is a byproduct of tritium decay.  Tritium can be created in nuclear reactors.)   And yet the DOE noted in 2009 that 2/3 of the 3He reserve that had been built up over the past 40 years had been doled out in about 6 years.  It is becoming extremely difficult for researchers to obtain the necessary supplies of this element in order to sustain their research.  The fate of very-low-temperature science is in peril right now; as persons no less prestigious than Nobel Laureate Robert Richardson have noted, there's no substitute for 3He if you want to achieve extremely low temperatures (Physics Today, October 2009).  The American Association for the Advancement of Science held a meeting a year ago, in February 2010, to raise awareness of the crisis.

What's causing this shortage?

Aside from its cryogenic capabilities (which encompass a wide variety of applications, ranging from basic physics research to quantium computing), 3He has applications in some specialized medical imaging applications, and it's also the best substance around for building efficient neutron detectors.  This last thing has been the cause of much sorrow in the scientific community since 2001.  Immediately after 9/11, the newly created United States Department of Homeland Security started gobbling up close to 80% of the US supply of 3He for use in proportional neutron counters deployed around the country to detect secret/illegal shipments of fissile material such as plutonium. 

Once again, Physics Today (June 2010) has the goods:  In the past decade, the US inventory of 3He has plummeted from over 200,000 liters in 2001 to under 50,000 liters today.  The DOE suspended releases of 3He in 2009.  For 2010, it allocated 12,000 liters for release; worldwide demand is estimated at close to 70,000 liters annually.

Worse still, the International Atomic Energy Agency—you know, the guys who go around trying to assess whether folks are secretly and naughtily developing nuclear weapons?  Those guys?—have been told by the United States that future shipments of 3He are unlikely.  The IAEA relies upon helium-based detectors for the nuclear safety, inspection, and compliance parts of its mission.

(Interestingly, the only other major supplier of 3He outside of the United States has been Russia.  It sold something on the order of 25,000 liters within the US annually between 2004 and 2008 (Physics Today, June 2010).  But sales stopped abruptly in 2008; nobody knows why.  One obvious possibility is that Russia has ramped up the construction and deployment of neutron detectors within its own shipping infrastructure.  But that's just a guess.)

In April, 2011, the then-chairman of the House Energy and Environment subcommittee criticized the DHS and the DOE for failing to foresee the shortage.  They ought to have realized, said representative Miller, their heavy reliance upon 3He for radiation-detecting equipment would be a "disaster".  And yet...  Around the same time, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (an offshoot of DHS) proudly unveiled plans to deploy a second-generation monitoring system known as the ASP (advanced spectroscopic portal) system.  The ASP system would require 200,000 liters of 3He.  That's almost the entirety of the entire US supply, pre-9/11.  It would suck up 80% or more of the global future demand.

According to Physics Today, then-chairman Miller "voiced his astonishment" that the DNDO hadn't bothered to verify the existence of adequate 3He supplies.   And rightly so; this demonstrates a pretty clear disdain for any notion of cooperation with the international scientific community.  It's also indicative of groupthink, and a large organization working entirely within its own bubble.  But that's another rant entirely.  So I'll just call it blindingly stupid and move on.

It isn't all doom and gloom on the 3He front, at least when it comes to neutron detection applications.  There are other technologies that can be used, which obviate the need for 3He.  Helium remains the gold standard for such detectors, but there are workarounds.  Some are even solid-state devices, more suitable to combat situations, where a gas-filled detector is prone to springing leaks.  The drawback is that some of the operational materials are toxic, or hard to work with.  But these problems, too, may be mitigated over time as the switch is made to non-3He technologies.  And that switch is starting to happen, thereby reducing (slightly) the pressure on the world's 3He market.

Whether or not the 800-pound gorilla of 3He usage chooses to play nicely is an open question right now.  My guess, based on past performance of the DHS, is that it won't.

Release Valve?

The situation isn't completely hopeless.  Although demand for helium is unlikely to decrease in the foreseeable future (or even the long-term future), it may be possible to lessen the pressure on the helium market by finding new sources of helium.

The most desireable (and feasible) method of doing this for 4He would be to find and open up new gas fields that happen to be rich in helium.   As noted above, the United States's large gas fields in Texas and Kansas proved to be one of the richest (known) helium deposits in the world.  Exploration work is ongoing; a new plant has opened in Algeria, and existing plants in Qatar have been upgraded.

But because I'm a science fiction writer, I note there are other, far more speculative sources of 4He. In his follow-up comment to Part 1, Steve Halter mentioned the possibility of harvesting helium from our solar system's gas giants, such as Jupiter or Saturn. This is a very cool idea.  I'm not an expert on space travel. It would seem that for mining the gas giants, the "cheapest" and quickest methods would involve automated probes running back and forth from Earth. (As opposed to trying to establish orbital mining stations, for instance, with a human contingent.  Unless we someday manage to establish an entire industrial infrastructure outside of the Earth's gravity well.  Which is necessary if we're ever going to make it off this rock permanently.) But my guess would be that the probes would have to return so much helium to pay for the multi-multi-billion dollar R&D for the project (and the decades-long lead times, given how long it would take to get something to Jupiter and back) that it might not be possible. The probe might even require the ability to liquify the helium for transport, which would make it a big beast. Or the helium return would have to be combined with the mining of other valuable minerals as well.  This is all spitballing, though, from somebody who doesn't know much about much.

Slightly closer to home, the sun contains a lot of helium, of both flavors.  Perhaps it could be harvested from the solar wind?  (Although, according to this paper, it appears the elemental abundance of 4He in the solar wind is lower than that of several other elements, including ones I wouldn't have expected, such as magnesium.)

Another SFnal notion in circulation for a while has been that 3He might be found much closer still, on the moon.  In fact, the 3He abundance on the moon is something like 15 parts per billion in some areas, and possibly higher in others.  So it's there…but it would take some work to get at it—roughly a hundred million tons of processed regolith for each ton of 3He.  But who knows?  Maybe there are ways to piggyback on other ventures, and make this profitable.  [Addendum: Steve Halter has pointed me to a much deeper and more intelligent analysis of lunar helium mining here at Charlie Stross's blog.]

Meanwhile, as far as 3He is concerned, there are more straightforward possibilities.  Making 4He isn't feasible, but it is possible to make 3He.  We've done it in the past; most of the world's remaining 3He inventory is a byproduct of the nuclear age.  It's possible to design a nuclear reactor that produces tritium as a byproduct; if funneled off and properly stored, the radioactive decay of that tritium will slowly produce 3He.

And there you have it.  But this entire discussion would be meaningless if helium weren't, well, useful.  So in Part 3, I'll try to speak coherently about the wonders of helium for both industrial and basic science applications.


Steve Halter February 9, 2011 at 1:05 pm
That's another good segment. Thank's for bringing it up as I hadn't been thinking about it at all. Cool. It would seem like the shortage of He will push two areas. 1) We will look for more sources--natural or manufactured. 2) We'll have to try to develop alternatives. Since, as you point out, the low temperature properties of He3 really can't be substituted, it would seem like this could be another spur to high temperature superconductor research.
Melinda February 9, 2011 at 1:20 pm
Thanks for posting these essays. This is really interesting, informative, generally cool, and ultimately scary. Is no one in Congress noticing this or are they too busy talking about whether the President is a socialist, a communist, a fascist, a Muslim, or whether he has a birth certificate? Oh, and redefining rape.
Ian February 9, 2011 at 1:58 pm
I agree 100%. I don't know if it's inevitable but there's a strong case that we'll eventually break down and start manufacturing 3He again. I guess it depends on whether the benefits of having a stable 3He supply outweigh the costs of developing that supply (including environmental and other concerns surrounding the operation of the reactors). In the short term, the DOE has been in talks with Ontario Power Generation for quite a while now to purchase the surplus 3He created in Canada's 22 heavy-water reactors (which amount to about half all such reactors in the world). But that's a minor stopgap at best. The only other alternative is, well, alternatives, as you point out. It's interesting that the superconducting magnets on the LHC require liquid helium temperatures, rather than liquid nitrogen temperatures as made possible my superconductivity breakthroughs in the 1980s. But different types of superconductors can have wildly different magnetic properties which might make them unsuitable for certain applications.
Ian February 9, 2011 at 2:08 pm
Thanks, I'm glad you like these posts. They're a lot of work but I'm enjoying the (slightly) deeper understanding it gives me. I haven't written it yet, but I think the really scary part will be in the third and final post, when I list all the technologies we use that depend upon helium. No more helium means no more MRI machines, for one.
Sara G. February 22, 2011 at 7:42 pm
Finding this all quite fascinating! And it may change how I watch the movie Up. Also particularly appreciated the element pun because I wrote an element pun into the line of a scientist (marine biologist) in a script and the marine biologist upon whom the character was based took issue with it. He said real scientists don't make 'science' jokes, people who aren't scientists only think they do. That was before he saw the draft into which I'd added a Linnaean taxonomy joke.
Ian February 25, 2011 at 3:54 pm
Gosh, now that you point it out, this kind of turns Up into a looming dystopia. That bums me out; I do so love that movie. Real scientists do so make science jokes. We're just really really bad at it. Is there any hope I could see this script? I would love to read anything that applies the famous Gmitter wit to Linnaean taxonomic nomenclature.
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