Back in the days when I used to maintain this blog (so, quite a few years ago), I occasionally wrote about helium. Many people are surprised to learn that helium, the stuff of party balloons and superconducting magnets for particle accelerators (and many dozens of other uses), is a slowly dwindling non-renewable resource.
[TL;DR: (1) The mean thermal velocity of a helium atom in the atmosphere is greater than earth’s escape velocity, meaning that free helium atoms are not gravitationally bound to the earth. Unless recaptured, virtually all leaked helium will eventually diffuse to the top of the atmosphere and boil away. (2) We can’t make new helium in anything remotely approaching the global demand for it. It is a byproduct of nuclear processes. The entirety of the earth’s supply of helium accumulated over vast geological time scales — billions of years — via the decay of radioactive elements. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. (3) For many decades, the United States has maintained a Strategic Helium Reserve, which was originally established for our fleet of war blimps (really). But then scientific ignorance and short-sighted economic stupidity decided to get eloped, leaving the global helium market well and truly fucked ever since.]
I’ve written about the nature and myriad uses of helium, “peak helium,” helium markets, fluctuations in the global supply, and related topics here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
My friend Terry England recently pointed me to this article about a strange and fascinating surplus of helium-3. (Take that Vice article with a grain of salt. It’s a bit hyperbolic, and some of the statements are not scientifically accurate. I’m willing to buy that people have found an anomaly in 3He/4He ratios. If true, that’s pretty interesting. But the intimation that this could solve the world’s energy problem is a heaping pile of bullshit.)
And, back in April, Physics Today‘s website ran a piece about the current, most recent, global helium supply bottleneck. The title is pretty telling: “Helium is again in short supply.” The price of liquid helium (I’m assuming this means liquid 4He) has doubled in the past two years. While a decreased demand during the pandemic loosened up the supply and lowered helium prices, the pendulum has now swung back in the other direction. People who follow this stuff more seriously and regularly than I do say this is the fourth major helium supply shortage in the past 16 years. To quote Physics Today: “Phil Kornbluth, a helium industry consultant, has dubbed the current helium situation Shortage 4.0; supply deficits also occurred in 2006–7, 2011–13, and 2018–20.”
There are precious few major suppliers of helium around the world. A shutdown at a single plant, or even a reduction in capacity, ripples through the entire market. Geopolitics also plays a role. Several of the largest suppliers have resorted to declaring force majeure, delivering substantially less than their contracted amounts.
Particularly shocking is this revelation about some suppliers, and the contracts they negotiate with end-users (in this case, university researchers): per Physics Today again, “They told us we have to sign a commitment not to recycle.”
a CoMmItMeNt NoT tO rEcYcLe HeLiUm
what the actual fuck
But don’t worry, everyone. The remainder of the federal government’s helium assets will be auctioned off to a private owner as early as September. At which point the new owner will enjoy complete freedom to sell the helium however it sees fit. I’m sure that will work out great.