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.