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The Helium Apocalypse Averted (For Now)

November 23, 2013 at 4:00 pm

Well, "apocalypse" might be a bit strong.  Or a lot strong.  But anyway.

The November 2013 issue of the APS News (published by the American Physical Society) has a bit more information about the recently passed Helium Stewardship Act. 

The Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 was signed into law on October 2, thereby authorizing the Bureau of Land Management to continue to sell helium from the reserve that it manages.  The Federal Helium Reserve accounts for 40% of all the helium in the U.S., and about a third of the helium worldwide.  Without the Stewardship Act legislation, the BLM would have had to stop selling helium from the reserve after September 30—which would have borked the world helium market owing to sudden severe scarcity.  

The new law enables the BLM to keep selling helium until the reserve dwindles almost to zero.  This is less than ideal, as it could mean that we still experience massive helium scarcity in the near-term future unless new sources are brought up to capacity before then.  According to APS News, development of new helium extraction refineries is underway in Wyoming, Russia, Algeria, and Qatar.  But it's not clear, and might not be for years, how much of the global supply these refineries will produce.   Furthermore, helium refinement has historically beeen notoriously unprofitable to the extent that there has been very little commercial interest in developing new extraction efforts.

However, the new legislation uses an auction process to set the price for sold helium.  This means that the BLM will no longer be selling the helium at a fixed price far below the market price.  And this is a significant improvement over the previous situation, because those artificially low prices encouraged excess consumption that harmed the supply.  The government-subsidized supply also priced potential new suppliers out of the market.

Now the hope is that the price of helium provided via the Federal Helium Reserve will rise to a more reasonable level.  So while prices are expected to rise, they shouldn't rise extremely severely as would have happened had the BLM been forced to shut off the spigot.  The hope is that higher prices will also encourage more exploration and development.

Another interesting bit in the APS News piece mentions that the new legislation includes language about R&D for membrane technologies to improve helium capture at the wellhead itself.  (Most of the helium that gets extracted and stored usually appears as a contaminant in natural gas wells.)  So that's encouraging. 

Still, the long-term future of the world's helium supply remains unclear.  Because, as I've mentioned before, once helium leaks into the atmosphere it's essentially gone for good.  And the helium we do have accumulated over billions of years of geologic time.


Brendan Hong November 24, 2013 at 7:03 pm

This is good news to hear; I almost missed it as Goodreads doesn't seem to like to show anything but the title of your website blog posts, Ian. It's scary to think that humans could make an element extinct on planet Earth just from the way we use it so carelessly. 

Ian November 25, 2013 at 9:09 am

Yeah, it's kind of crazy that so few people seem to realize how precious helium is.  Weirdness. 

I love blimps and zeppelins and airships, but part of me can't see past the helium resource issue to the romance of lighter-than-air craft.  OTOH, we could just develop our nanotech to the point where it's possible to "fill" airships with vacuum as in Neal Stephenson's _The Diamond Age_...

Thanks for the heads-up about the RSS feed -- I'll send a note to Richard right now.

December 2, 2013 at 8:35 am

I'm assuming there is no foreseen possibility of synthesizing helium, or another gas with similar properties?  

Ian December 2, 2013 at 10:02 am

Nope.  Not a chance.  In my original post about peak helium, I explain why that's the case:

Of course, it's easy to extract hydrogen from water and other compounds.  But helium has many many technical and scientific uses that go beyond its application to airships, and which are absolutely unique to helium.

I've seen commenters responding to online articles about the helium resource issue saying that it's really not a worry because fusion energy plants will create "more helium than we know what to do with."  This is so wrong that it's clear the people who make this claim have no familiarity with the fusion field and have never bothered to do a back-of-the-envelope estimate!  I actually did that estimate in the blog post at the above link.  It's not feasible and won't be within our lifetimes.  Period.

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