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The Helium Cliff (Peak Helium, Part 4)

October 10, 2013 at 6:00 pm

Over the past few years, I've written several blog posts about a looming worldwide shortage of helium.  It started with a series of three posts explaining the physics, history, and legislation giving rise to the "peak helium" problem (here, here, and here).  Since then I've followed the story and posted sporadic updates (here, here, here, and here). 

Then of course I fell off the face of the earth and haven't posted anything in quite a while.  But the helium situation continues to evolve...

The Federal Helium Reserve was all over the news back in April.  (Yes, I've been waiting 6 months to get around to writing this update.  I'm that lazy.)  The April 2013 issue of Physics Today contained a brief piece titled, "Gradual path proposed to empty helium reserve."  That same month, APS News (a publication of the American Physical Society, of which I am a member) ran a piece titled, "Congress Weighs Action to Ease Helium Crisis."

At the end of April, my friend and fellow scribbler Terry England sent a link to this piece in the Washington Post: Congress finds it hard to let Federal Helium Program run out of gas.  Now, I gotta tell ya, it makes me just a wee bit furious when I read pieces that mock the helium reserve as a boondoggle devised by backward-looking hayseeds because its original purpose was concerned with the construction of blimps and zeppelins.  Yes, zeppelins are quaint.  But the author of the Washington Post piece, one Mr. David A. Fahrenthold, tends to overlook or downplay the fact that helium has become absolutely indispensable to science*, medicine, and industry during the intervening 90 years.  Because it isn't 1925 any longer, dumbass.  In fact, far from being some kind of unkillable zombie boondoggle (employing a whopping 52 people, apparently), as Mr. Fahrenthold depicts it, the Federal Helium Reserve is a national asset.  Helium is more precious than ever.

(Why?  The situation is laid out fairly exhaustively in the first three posts linked above.  TL;DR: 1) Helium is a non-renewable resource, owing to the goddamned laws of physics.  Anybody who tells you differently is either a  moron, or a liar, or both.  2) A huge portion of the world's known supply is held in the Federal Helium Reserve.  3) Helium is essential to the functioning of MRI machines, not to mention its vital role in basic scientific research, various industrial processes, and even national security applications.)

Deep breaths, Ian...

OK.  Anyway, the gist of the Washington Post piece was that despite several legislative attempts to kill the Federal Helium Reserve Program over the years (dating back at least 3 decades), it somehow manages to survive time and again.  And that it has once again narrowly escaped the axe because OH MAN THOSE CLOWNS IN CONGRESS LOVE THEIR OLD-TIMEY BLIMPS TOO MUCH AMIRITE?!?  When actually what happened was that people finally realized that selling off (at ROCK BOTTOM PRICES! because EVERYTHING MUST GO!) or, hell, giving away the entire inventory of the reserve means squandering 35% of the world's supply.  As of April, both houses of Congress were drafting new legislation to alter the sell-off program (which was legislated in 1996, remember, and implemented in 2003) so that the helium is now sold at market price.  (Previously, the 1996 legislation insisted the helium be sold off no matter what until the Bureau of Land Management recouped the $1.4 billion spent accumulating the helium in the first place.)  So that's a step in the right direction, as the original policy basically wrecked the world helium market. 

But there's another problem.  That $1.4 billion dollars I mentioned?  Well, the BLM broke even in Fiscal Year 2013, which ended on September 30.  And the original legislation gave the BLM no mandate to continue selling helium from the reserve after October 7.  Meaning it would no longer have authority to sell helium from the reserve it manages.  A reserve which currently meets over one third of the global demand for helium and provides about 40% of the US supply.  So turning off the spigot would create a sudden and massive "helium cliff" in the global supply.

A global supply that has been extremely volatile over the past few years, as I've noted in the blog posts linked above. 

So, another purpose of the modified legislation is to allow continued sales of helium from the reserve after October 7, 2013.  (Which, you may have noticed, was last week.***)  The House of Representatives passed legislation to allow this on April 26. But here's where the Washington Post article's cynical insinuation that the Federal Helium Reserve had once again risen from the dead falls flat on its face: the Senate hadn't yet enacted similar legislation at the time that article went to press.  Meaning action on the helium reserve had stalled.

(A similar bill to extend helium operations at the reserve died in a Senate committee last year, and one of its sponsors has retired since then.)

Which was the point raised in an August Yahoo! News article that my friend and coworker Carl Gilbert brought to my attention: Looming Helium Shortage Raises Alarms.  This article also links to a nice summary of the situation in Science magazine.

The House bill (H.R. 527: The Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act) would let sales continue for another year, after which point 60% or more of the helium would be sold via auctions held twice per year.  (This apparently being intended as a remedy for the BLM selling helium at below-market prices.)  Once the reserve falls to 85 billion liters (from roughly 370 billion liters at the end of FY 2013), sales would be limited to federal users, in order to keep a steady supply from the reserve for approximately another decade (or 15 years for 3 billion cubic feet, according to Physics Today).  It's not a great solution—I simply do not understand this stubborn fascination with dumping so much of the world's supply of helium—but it's a definite improvement.  And the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing on a substantially similar bill (S. 783: the Helium Stewardship Act) on May 7.

So.  Plenty of time to avert this looming fustercluck before the end of the fiscal year, right?

Uh-huh.  This is Congress we're talking about here.

Which is why, on September 18, the American Physical Society sent an urgent letter to its membership, which you can read here.  (There's also an accompanying op-ed piece co-written by the President of the APS.)  The good news is that the Senate voted to pass the bill the next day, September 19.  I don't know if the action from APS members had any effect on that.  (Though APS members have been very active in advocating for better stewardship of the helium reserve.)   H.R. 527: Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 was enacted after being signed into law on October 2, 2013.

The full title of this Act is as follows: To amend the Helium Act to complete the privatization of the Federal helium reserve in a competitive market fashion that ensures stability in the helium markets while protecting the interests of American taxpayers, and for other purposes.

Definitely an improvement over the previous situation; nice to see that bit about "stability of the helium markets" in there.  I still think we need to consider very carefully how quickly we want to deplete our helium reserves, but this has at least bought us some time.  Notice that this legislation doesn't really help to ameliorate current shortages; it merely stanches the worst of the hemhorrhaging.  (Also, while the pricing mechanism in the enacted legislation does refer to sampling actual market prices, this mechanism is a lower priority than setting the sale price via auction.  Which could lead to large swings in the market price of helium.)

ETA: It was getting pretty late when I posted this, so I neglected to point out the biggest problem of all with the new plan.  The new legislation is designed to bring the Federal Helium Reserve to a "soft landing," so to speak, within the next 10-15 years.  If new helium extraction capacity isn't up and running in a significant fashion relatively soon, we are likely to deplete our country's entire reservoir of helium—and a major portion of the world's supply—within the lifetimes of virtually everybody reading this (all four of us).  

And helium extraction is a tricky business.  Helium is extracted as contaminant from certain natural gas fields.  (Note I'm talking about extraction here, not about the physical origin of the helium atoms themselves.  I covered that here.)  Thus, given the current boom in domestic natural gas production, one might think that the ongoing helium shortage is destined to be short-lived.  But here's the thing: only certain gas fields contain enough helium to make its extraction commercially/financially/energetically viable.  The helium must be present at the level of 0.3% or more.  And shale gas, which accounts for most of the increased production of natural gas in recent years?  Contains essentially no helium at all.  And any helium that is mingled with the shale gas fields leaks away through cracks in the surrounding rock after fracking occurs.   

*Here's one teensy example.  Perhaps you've heard about the discovery of the Higgs boson last July, which just this week netted two people** the Nobel Prize in Physics this week?  That work would have been utterly impossible without the superconducting magnets that line the Large Hadron Collider.  And how are those magnets cooled?  With liquid helium.  Yep.

**Which is cool and all, but sort of odd, given the many hundreds of people who worked on the actual experiment that made the actual detections.

***Giving rise to no end of budget-showdown idiocy here in the U.S. at present.  About which the less said the better my blood pressure.


Steve Halter October 12, 2013 at 2:10 pm

H.R. 527 does seem like a move in the right direction. It is really amazing that it passed given that this Congress seems a tad weak on actual accomplishments.

Given that about 30% of the natural gas extracted in North Dakota is being burnt off as it is too much of a bother, I doubt much attention is paid to what little helium is even there. Ah, well.

The WaPo piece is terrible but that isn't very different from a lot of WaPo reporting that I see. They don't seem to devote much time to actually thinking about or researching their subjects.

Ian October 12, 2013 at 6:57 pm

I agree-- I'm actually rather astonished that this got through Congress at all, given all the other things this Congress has failed to accomplish.  And it seems like they're starting to see the looming problem.

I didn't know that about the natural gas in ND.  That's amazingly short sighted.  The economics of the oil and natural gas industry are pretty fascinating, at least insofar as I can comprehend a tiny sliver of it.

The mocking tone of the WaPo piece definitely didn't ring of serious journalism to me.  A little bit of research would have revealed this is a serious issue...  Gah.

Andrew Healy October 13, 2013 at 8:42 am

Hello again.

Thanks to your multiple kind links, I managed to read all of your articles about Helium that you have posted about so far.  Given my previous complete ignorance as to the versatility and usefulness of this element, it was both fascinating and worrisome.

It raises the questions of what things we could jury-rig to replace the various machines that require the element, but I am not optimistic, there. 

And as long as Congress is involved, the worst case scenario is always possible.  Particularly with what is going on now.  

One would think that serious communication and prioritization between, well, everyone, would only be a boon.  But, why would anyone want to do that?

Having been on the receiving end of some MRIs, I can appreciate the use of the machine.  No idea how it worked, of course.

Another problem is that I imagine the vast overwhelming majority of humanity haven't a clue about this entire situation.



Ian October 13, 2013 at 11:13 am
The helium problem is definitely something that's far below the radar for the vast majority of people.  And understandably so, as it's not something that directly impacts many people in the here-and-now.  It's likely to become a growing problem for an increasing number of people as time goes on (such as if MRIs become much scarcer or much more expensive).

One hope is that the advances in "high temperaure" superconductivity could eventually make it possible to replace the superconducting magnets in MRI machines (and the Large Hadron Collider, for that matter) with ones that can be cooled with liquid nitrogen rather than liquid helium.  Nitrogen liquifaction can be done just by pumping down atmospheric nitrogen (I believe), and that is replenished as part of the nitrogen cycle.

As for airships, a balloon filled with absolutely nothing would have even more buoyancy than a hydrogen envelope!  If only a superlightweight superstrong material were available for making this possible.  (Neal Stephenson has something like this in The Diamond Age, iirc.)
Tengland October 14, 2013 at 7:14 pm

Nobel rules prohibit more than three people getting a prize at a time, so hundreds of names had to be willowed down to three. In this case, the guy the particle was named after (not God, the human guy) seemed the logical choice. And the guy who had the same idea about the same time but didn't get a particle named after him.

Also, they can't be dead, which is why Rosalind Franklyn didn't get one even though her work was the final link in the discovery of DNA.

As for helium -- <i>heee-heee-hee it makes my voice sound funny</i> --- a-HEM! As for helium, you're right, only few people think about it, though there may be signs it's sinking in, like the sign on the door of a local grocery store stating they weren't suffering from a shortage of the gas, though their reason for selling it had nothing to do with MRIs and plenty to do with party balloons. When parents can't buy helium for their kid's birthday party, <i>then</i> you'll start squawks about how to save this "precious national resource."

Ian October 14, 2013 at 9:01 pm

I know the rules were set by Alfred Nobel, and are thus immutable.  But still -- Franklin got snubbed on more than just the Nobel Prize.  And Lise Meitner got snubbed while she was still alive.  Experimental particle physics didn't exist -- huge multinational experimental programs didn't exist -- when Nobel created the prizes.  So I'm sure the 3-person rule made sense at the time.  (And the money wouldn't go far if it were split amongst 500 people.) 

Joe October 14, 2013 at 7:53 pm

The helium market sounds like it's escaped from a steampunk story. I imagine a market made up of  a hundred different airships all connected by planks and rope ladders.

Actually, I have the feeling Alastair Reynolds had something like that in Terminal World.

Ian October 14, 2013 at 9:02 pm
I would like to see that market, actually.  I haven't read that Reynolds novel, but now I want to.
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