Helium-3 Mmm, polarized helium-3 and neutron spin filters
WORLD HELIUM SHORTAGE
Why the world is running out of helium
by Steve Connor / 23 August 2010
It is the second-lightest element in the Universe, has the lowest boiling-point of any gas and is commonly used through the world to inflate party balloons. But helium is also a non-renewable resource and the world’s reserves of the precious gas are about to run out, a shortage that is likely to have far-reaching repercussions. Scientists have warned that the world’s most commonly used inert gas is being depleted at an astonishing rate because of a law passed in the United States in 1996 which has effectively made helium too cheap to recycle. The law stipulates that the US National Helium Reserve, which is kept in a disused underground gas field near Amarillo, Texas – by far the biggest store of helium in the world – must all be sold off by 2015, irrespective of the market price.
The experts warn that the world could run out of helium within 25 to 30 years, potentially spelling disaster for hospitals, whose MRI scanners are cooled by the gas in liquid form, and anti-terrorist authorities who rely on helium for their radiation monitors, as well as the millions of children who love to watch their helium-filled balloons float into the sky. Helium is made either by the nuclear fusion process of the Sun, or by the slow and steady radioactive decay of terrestrial rock, which accounts for all of the Earth’s store of the gas. There is no way of manufacturing it artificially, and practically all of the world’s reserves have been derived as a by-product from the extraction of natural gas, mostly in the giant oil- and gasfields of the American South-west, which historically have had the highest helium concentrations.
Liquid helium is critical for cooling cooling infrared detectors, nuclear reactors and the machinery of wind tunnels. The space industry uses it in sensitive satellite equipment and spacecraft, and Nasa uses helium in huge quantities to purge the potentially explosive fuel from its rockets. In the form of its isotope helium-3, helium is also crucial for research into the next generation of clean, waste-free nuclear reactors powered by nuclear fusion, the nuclear reaction that powers the Sun. Despite the critical role that the gas plays in the modern world, it is being depleted as an unprecedented rate and reserves could dwindle to virtually nothing within a generation, warns Nobel laureate Robert Richardson, professor of physics at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “In 1996, the US Congress decided to sell off the strategic reserve and the consequence was that the market was swelled with cheap helium because its price was not determined by the market. The motivation was to sell it all by 2015,” Professor Richardson said. The basic problem is that helium is too cheap. The Earth is 4.7 billion years old and it has taken that long to accumulate our helium reserves, which we will dissipate in about 100 years. One generation does not have the right to determine availability for ever.” Soon after helium mining was developed at the turn of the previous century, the US established a National Helium Reserve in 1925. During the Second World War, helium was strategically important because of its use in military airships.
When the Cold War came along, it became even more important because of its uses in the purging of rocket fuel in intercontinental ballistic missiles. The national reserve was established in the porous rock of a disused natural gasfield 30 miles north of Amarillo, which soon became known as the Helium Capital of the World. A billion cubic metres – or about half of the world’s reserves – are now stored in this cluster of mines, pipes and vats that extend underground for more than 200 miles from Amarillo to Kansas. But in 1996, the US passed the Helium Privatisation Act which directed that this reserve should be sold by 2015 at a price that would substantially pay off the federal government’s original investment in building up the reserve. The law stipulated the amount of helium sold off each year should follow a straight line with the same amount being sold each year, irrespective of the global demand for it. This, according to Professor Richardson, who won his Nobel prize for his work on helium-3, was a mistake. “As a result of that Act, helium is far too cheap and is not treated as a precious resource,” he said. “It’s being squandered.”
Professor Richardson co-chaired an inquiry into the impending helium shortage convened by the influential US National Research Council, an arm of the US National Academy of Sciences. This report, which has just been published, recommends that the US Government should revisit and reconsider its policy of selling off the US national helium reserve. “They couldn’t sell it fast enough and the world price for helium gas is ridiculously cheap,” Professor Richardson told a summer meeting of Nobel laureates from around the world at Lindau in Germany. “You might at first think it will be peculiarly an American topic because the sources of helium are primarily in the US but I assure you it matters of the rest of the world also,” he said. Professor Richardson believes the price for helium should rise by between 20- and 50-fold to make recycling more worthwhile. Nasa, for instance, makes no attempt to recycle the helium used to clean is rocket fuel tanks, one of the single biggest uses of the gas. Professor Richardson also believes that party balloons filled with helium are too cheap, and they should really cost about $100 to reflect the precious nature of the gas they contain. “Once helium is released into the atmosphere in the form of party balloons or boiling helium it is lost to the Earth forever, lost to the Earth forever,” he emphasized.
What helium is used for:
Airships – As helium is lighter than air it can be used to inflate airships, blimps and balloons, providing lift. Although hydrogen is cheaper and more buoyant, helium is preferred as it is non-flammable and therefore safer.
MRI scanners – Helium’s low boiling point makes it useful for cooling metals needed for superconductivity, from cooling the superconducting magnets in medical MRI scanners to maintaining the low temperature of the Large Hadron Collider at Cern.
Deep-sea diving – Divers and others working under pressure use mixtures of helium, oxygen and nitrogen to breathe underwater, avoiding the problems caused by breathing ordinary air under high pressure, which include disorientation.
Rockets – As well as being used to clean out rocket engines, helium is used to pressurise the interior of liquid fuel rockets, condense hydrogen and oxygen to make rocket fuel, and force fuel into the engines during rocket launches.
Dating – Helium can be used to estimate the age of rocks and minerals containing uranium and thorium by measuring their retention of helium.
Telescopes – The gas is used in solar telescopes to prevent the heating of the air, which reduces the distorting effects of temperature variations in the space between lenses.
MINING the MOON
Mining the Moon
by Mark Williams / August 23, 2007
At the 21st century’s start, few would have predicted that by 2007, a second race for the moon would be under way. Yet the signs are that this is now the case. Furthermore, in today’s moon race, unlike the one that took place between the United States and the U.S.S.R. in the 1960s, a full roster of 21st-century global powers, including China and India, are competing. Even more surprising is that one reason for much of the interest appears to be plans to mine helium-3–purportedly an ideal fuel for fusion reactors but almost unavailable on Earth–from the moon’s surface. NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration has U.S. astronauts scheduled to be back on the moon in 2020 and permanently staffing a base there by 2024. While the U.S. space agency has neither announced nor denied any desire to mine helium-3, it has nevertheless placed advocates of mining He3 in influential positions. For its part, Russia claims that the aim of any lunar program of its own–for what it’s worth, the rocket corporation Energia recently started blustering, Soviet-style, that it will build a permanent moon base by 2015-2020–will be extracting He3.
The Chinese, too, apparently believe that helium-3 from the moon can enable fusion plants on Earth. This fall, the People’s Republic expects to orbit a satellite around the moon and then land an unmanned vehicle there in 2011. Nor does India intend to be left out. This past spring, its president, A.P.J. Kalam, and its prime minister, Manmohan Singh, made major speeches asserting that, besides constructing giant solar collectors in orbit and on the moon, the world’s largest democracy likewise intends to mine He3 from the lunar surface. India’s probe, Chandrayaan-1, will take off next year, and ISRO, the Indian Space Research Organization, is talking about sending Chandrayaan-2, a surface rover, in 2010 or 2011. Simultaneously, Japan and Germany are also making noises about launching their own moon missions at around that time, and talking up the possibility of mining He3 and bringing it back to fuel fusion-based nuclear reactors on Earth.
Could He3 from the moon truly be a feasible solution to our power needs on Earth? Practical nuclear fusion is nowadays projected to be five decades off–the same prediction that was made at the 1958 Atoms for Peace conference in Brussels. If fusion power’s arrival date has remained constantly 50 years away since 1958, why would helium-3 suddenly make fusion power more feasible? Advocates of He3-based fusion point to the fact that current efforts to develop fusion-based power generation, like the ITER megaproject, use the deuterium-tritium fuel cycle, which is problematical. Deuterium and tritium are both hydrogen isotopes, and when they’re fused in a superheated plasma, two nuclei come together to create a helium nucleus–consisting of two protons and two neutrons–and a high-energy neutron. A deuterium-tritium fusion reaction releases 80 percent of its energy in a stream of high-energy neutrons, which are highly destructive for anything they hit, including a reactor’s containment vessel. Since tritium is highly radioactive, that makes containment a big problem as structures weaken and need to be replaced. Thus, whatever materials are used in a deuterium-tritium fusion power plant will have to endure serious punishment. And if that’s achievable, when that fusion reactor is eventually decommissioned, there will still be a lot of radioactive waste.
Helium-3 advocates claim that it, conversely, would be nonradioactive, obviating all those problems. But a serious critic has charged that in reality, He3-based fusion isn’t even a feasible option. In the August issue of Physics World, theoretical physicist Frank Close, at Oxford in the UK, has published an article called “Fears Over Factoids” in which, among other things, he summarizes some claims of the “helium aficionados,” then dismisses those claims as essentially fantasy. Close points out that in a tokamak–a machine that generates a doughnut-shaped magnetic field to confine the superheated plasmas necessary for fusion–deuterium reacts up to 100 times more slowly with helium-3 than it does with tritium. In a plasma contained in a tokamak, Close stresses, all the nuclei in the fuel get mixed together, so what’s most probable is that two deuterium nuclei will rapidly fuse and produce a tritium nucleus and proton. That tritium, in turn, will likely fuse with deuterium and finally yield one helium-4 atom and a neutron. In short, Close says, if helium-3 is mined from the moon and brought to Earth, in a standard tokamak the final result will still be deuterium-tritium fusion.
Second, Close rejects the claim that two helium-3 nuclei could realistically be made to fuse with each other to produce deuterium, an alpha particle and energy. That reaction occurs even more slowly than deuterium-tritium fusion, and the fuel would have to be heated to impractically high temperatures–six times the heat of the sun’s interior, by some calculations–that would be beyond the reach of any tokamak. Hence, Close concludes, “the lunar-helium-3 story is, to my mind, moonshine.” Close’s objection, however, assumes that deuterium-helium-3 fusion and pure helium-3 fusion would take place in tokamak-based reactors. There might be alternatives: for example, Gerald Kulcinski, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has maintained the only helium-3 fusion reactor in the world on an annual budget that’s barely into six figures.
Kulcinski’s He3-based fusion reactor, located in the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of Wisconsin, is very small. When running, it contains a spherical plasma roughly 10 centimeters in diameter that can produce sustained fusion with 200 million reactions per second. To produce a milliwatt of power, unfortunately, the reactor consumes a kilowatt. Close’s response is, therefore, valid enough: “When practical fusion occurs with a demonstrated net power output, I–and the world’s fusion community–can take note.” Still, that critique applies equally to ITER and the tokamak-based reactor effort, which also haven’t yet achieved breakeven (the point at which a fusion reactor produces as much energy as it consumes). What’s significant about the reactor in Wisconsin is that, as Kulcinski says, “We are doing both deuterium-He3 and He3-He3 reactions. We run deuterium-He3 fusion reactions daily, so we are very familiar with that reaction. We are also doing He3-He3 because if we can control that, it will have immense potential.”
The reactor at the Fusion Technology Institute uses a technology called inertial electrostatic confinement (IEC). Kulcinski explains: “If we used a tokamak to do deuterium-helium-3, it would need to be bigger than the ITER device, which already is stretching the bounds of credibility. Our IEC devices, on the other hand, are tabletop-sized, and during our deuterium-He3 runs, we do get some neutrons produced by side reaction with deuterium.” Nevertheless, Kulcinski continues, when side reactions occur that involve two deuterium nuclei fusing to produce a tritium nucleus and proton, the tritium produced is at such a higher energy level than the confinement system that it immediately escapes. “Consequently, the radioactivity in our deuterium-He3 system is only 2 percent of the radioactivity in a deuterium-tritium system.” More significant is the He3-He3 fusion reaction that Kulcinski and his assistants produce with their IEC-based reactor. In Kulcinski’s reactor, two helium-3 nuclei, each with two protons and one neutron, instead fuse to produce one helium-4 nucleus, consisting of two protons and two neutrons, and two highly energetic protons. “He3-He3 is not an easy reaction to promote,” Kulcinski says. “But He3-He3 fusion has the greatest potential.” That’s because helium-3, unlike tritium, is nonradioactive, which, first, means that Kulcinski’s reactor doesn’t need the massive containment vessel that deuterium-tritium fusion requires. Second, the protons it produces–unlike the neutrons produced by deuterium-tritium reactions–possess charges and can be contained using electric and magnetic fields, which in turn results in direct electricity generation. Kulcinski says that one of his graduate assistants at the Fusion Technology Institute is working on a solid-state device to capture the protons and convert their energy directly into electricity.
Still, Kulcinski’s reactor proves only the theoretical feasibility and advantages of He3-He3 fusion, with commercial viability lying decades in the future. “Currently,” he says, “the Department of Energy will tell us, ‘We’ll make fusion work. But you’re never going to go back to the moon, and that’s the only way you’ll get massive amounts of helium-3. So forget it.’ Meanwhile, the NASA folks tell us, ‘We can get the helium-3. But you’ll never get fusion to work.’ So DOE doesn’t think NASA can do its job, NASA doesn’t think that DOE can do its job, and we’re in between trying to get the two to work together.” Right now, Kulcinski’s funding comes from two wealthy individuals who are, he says, only interested in the research and without expectation of financial profit. Overall, then, helium-3 is not the low-hanging fruit among potential fuels to create practical fusion power, and it’s one that we will have to reach the moon to pluck. That said, if pure He3-based fusion power is realizable, it would have immense advantages.
by Emily Jenkins / Aug 2000
There are two kinds of stable helium. You know the first one: It puts lift in birthday balloons, Thanksgiving Day parades, the Goodyear blimp. The other kind, an isotope called helium-3, may not be as familiar. It’s a naturally occurring, but very rare, variant of helium that is missing a neutron. Helium-3 is the fuel for a form of nuclear fusion that, in theory, could provide us with a clean, virtually infinite power source. Gerald Kulcinski, director of the University of Wisconsin’s Fusion Technology Institute, is already halfway there. Kulcinski is in charge of an “inertial electrostatic confinement device,” an experimental low-power reactor that has successfully performed continuous deuterium-helium-3 fusion – a process that produces less waste than the standard deuterium-tritium fusion reaction. The next step, pure helium-3 fusion (3He-3He) is a long way off, but it’s worth the effort, says Kulcinski. “You’d have a little residual radioactivity when the reactor was running, but none when you turned it off. It would be a nuclear power source without the nuclear waste.”
If we ever achieve it, helium-3 fusion will be the premier rocket fuel for centuries to come. The same lightness that floats CargoLifter’s CL160 will allow helium to provide more power per unit of mass than anything else available. With it, rockets “could get to Mars in a weekend, instead of seven or eight months,” says Marshall Savage, an amateur futurist and the author of The Millennial Project: Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps. The problem? We may run out of helium – and therefore helium-3 – before the fusion technology is even developed. Nearly all of the world’s helium supply is found within a 250-mile radius of Amarillo, Texas (the Helium Capital of the World). A byproduct of billions of years of decay, helium is distilled from natural gas that has accumulated in the presence of radioactive uranium and thorium deposits. If it’s not extracted during the natural gas refining process, helium simply soars off when the gas is burned, unrecoverable.
The federal government first identified helium as a strategic resource in the 1920s; in 1960 Uncle Sam began socking it away in earnest. Thirty-two billion cubic feet of the gas are bunkered underground in Cliffside, a field of porous rock near Amarillo. But now the government is getting out of the helium business, and it’s selling the stockpile to all comers. Industrial buyers use the gas primarily for arc welding (helium creates an inert atmosphere around the flame) and leak detection (hydrogen has a smaller atom, but it usually forms a diatomic molecule, H2). NASA uses it to pressurize space shuttle fuel tanks: The Kennedy Space Center alone uses more than 75 million cubic feet annually. Liquid helium, which has the lowest melting point of any element (-452 degrees Fahrenheit), cools infrared detectors, nuclear reactors, wind tunnels, and the superconductive magnets in MRI equipment. At our current rate of consumption, Cliffside will likely be empty in 10 to 25 years, and the Earth will be virtually helium-free by the end of the 21st century. “For the scientific community, that’s a tragedy,” says Dave Cornelius, a Department of Interior chemist at Cliffside. “It would be a shame to squander it,” agrees Kulcinski.
For helium-3’s true believers – the ones who think the isotope’s fusion power will take us to the edge of our solar system and beyond – talk of the coming shortage is overblown: There’s a huge, untapped supply right in our own backyard. “The moon is the El Dorado of helium-3,” says Savage, and he’s right: Every star, including our sun, emits helium constantly. Implanted in the lunar soil by the solar wind, the all-important gas can be found on the moon by the bucketful. Associate professor Tim Swindle and his colleagues at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona have already begun prospecting. Swindle has mapped likely helium-3 deposits on the moon by charting the parts of the lunar landscape most exposed to solar wind against the locations of mineral deposits that best trap the element. But, says Swindle, when we really want a lot – when we’re rocketing to the Red Planet and back for Labor Day weekend – the best place to gas up won’t be the moon: “The really big source of it is way out.” In our quest for helium-3, we’ll travel to Uranus and Neptune, whose helium-rich atmospheres are very similar in chemical composition to the sun’s. If futurists like Swindle and Savage are right, the gas will be our reason for traveling to our solar system’s farthest reaches – and our means of getting there.
the NATIONAL HELIUM RESERVE
Closing of Helium Reserve Raises New Issues
by Sam Howe Verhovek / October 8, 1997
Of all the Federal programs that have ever come under attack, perhaps none has been more ridiculed or more reviled than the national helium reserve, here on the high plains of the Texas Panhandle. It is a collection of pipelines and pumps and vats and, most of all, a seemingly staggering amount of helium: 31 billion cubic feet, enough to supply current Federal needs for 100 years. ”Amazingly stupid, even by Government standards,” P. J. O’Rourke, the conservative humorist, said of the program, which forces Federal agencies to buy helium at inflated prices from the reserve. ”The poster child of Government waste,” said Christopher Cox, the California Congressman who led the fight to get rid of this veritable Fort Knox of helium.
But now that President Clinton has signed a bill that will get the Government out of the helium business and sell off the nation’s helium reserve to private industry, which has long claimed that it can supply helium more cheaply to agencies like NASA, the issue is turning out to be more complicated. In a vivid demonstration that cutting the Federal budget is rarely as easy or as simple as it seems, some experts are even daring to say it: maybe the helium reserve wasn’t such a dumb idea after all.
The jury is still out on just how much money will be saved by closing the operation near here, in part because the new law, for reasons that might prove daunting even for a Nobel laureate in economics, still requires the Government to pay an inflated price for helium. In some of the first contracts signed for privately supplied helium, irritated National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials note that the price, around $70 per thousand cubic feet, is roughly the same that they paid for helium from the reserve.
The American Physical Society, a prominent group of physicists, warns that getting rid of the nation’s helium stockpile is profoundly shortsighted. Though most people may think of helium as the thing that fills balloons and blimps, it is essential in all kinds of scientific pursuits, including the space program. For future generations, scientists say, it will be vital in the development of superconducting power lines, magnetically levitated trains, new kinds of generators and motors, and technology not yet even dreamed of. No one is predicting that the Government’s helium operation, in tumbleweed country about 25 miles north of Amarillo, will be magically revived. ”Everything you see here — it’s all going to go,” said Robert Robertson, an operator in the plant’s control room. ”The death warrant has been signed.” Nonetheless, even a cursory examination of the privatization of the Federal helium program, which the President set into motion when he signed the law a year ago, suggests that so far, instead of saving money, it has led to a messy accounting quandary in which the benefits are not yet clear.
Because the stores here are so large, the law requires that the helium, stored in a massive underground dome, be sold off slowly, over the next two decades, so as not to disrupt prices in the growing world market for helium. And in what, in effect, creates a secondary market in which Government agencies will bid for helium at above-market prices, the helium must be sold at prices that will fully pay off the $1.4 billion ”debt” the helium conservation program has accumulated since President John F. Kennedy helped begin it in the 1960’s so the nation’s space program would have a reliable supply. But because the debt is actually money that is owed by one Government agency to another, paying it off is basically a paper transaction intended to clear the helium reserve’s ledger. The Congressional Budget Office has already ruled that paying off the helium program’s debt will not do anything to reduce the national debt, currently at $5.3 trillion or so.
The bottom line, of course, is just how much money the Government will save by buying helium from private suppliers like the Exxon Corporation. Even the Helium Advisory Council, the industry group that has lobbied vigorously for privatization, says it is not easy to calculate the saving, partly because the new law has not yet cleared the way for the true privatization of the helium program, which would mean selling at market prices. Carl Johnson, chairman of the council, predicts that the closing will save money. But when he was asked just how much taxpayers would save annually and when they would start seeing the saving, he said, ”It’s a very difficult question, and I don’t even know how I would begin to answer it.” Representative Cox, a Republican from Orange County, Calif., who led the crusade to kill the helium program, was more definitive, saying the saving would eventually amount to about $24 million a year: $20 million from the greater efficiencies at private plants, compared with the antiquated complex here, and $4 million from lower helium costs.
But NASA, the main Federal recipient of helium, has yet to save any money because of the privatization. ”We were all in favor of helium privatization, but we missed something here,” said Steve Parker, a procurement official at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. ”Your question is, are we getting the savings we were promised? That’s a no. We’re still paying inflated prices for the accrued debt.” Meanwhile, because nobody knows what will happen to the world market price for helium in coming decades, no one can say for sure whether selling off the national reserve is a good idea in the long run. ”What it really boils down to is this: Do you think this is true debt that is costing the American taxpayers, or is it a cost of a strategic decision to conserve crude helium?” said Timothy R. Spisak, general manager of operations of the helium program here. ”Remember, you’ve still got an asset out here, 30 billion cubic feet of helium. If you sell it off, you don’t have it anymore.”
Colorless, odorless and largely inert, helium is unique among Earth’s 100 or so elements because it remains liquid even at just above absolute zero, which is roughly 460 degrees Fahrenheit. That makes it extremely useful as a pressurizer and a coolant. Robert L. Park, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland and the director of the Washington office of the American Physical Society, said that helium would have vastly increased uses in the future and that selling off the Federal reserve might one day be seen as a catastrophically heedless decision. He urged Congress to find some way to mandate an increase in the size of national reserves, even if they are held by private industry.
The supply-and-demand equation involving helium, which is nonrenewable, is extremely complex. The problem is that helium is a byproduct of natural gas and that it is not always economical for companies to extract it. Currently, only about half of the 6.7 billion cubic feet of helium taken out of the earth each year is separated from natural gas and saved. The rest disappears into the atmosphere. But critics of the Government reserve program say concerns about the current loss of helium are overblown. They say there is no reason that the future demand for helium cannot be met by private industry, which already supplies 90 percent of the helium used in the United States. “‘The physicists are right and more expert on the value to science of helium than any source you could consult,” Representative Cox said. ”But the physicists are not experts on economics and markets. And a great deal of what’s at stake here is the latter and not the former.”
In the Texas Panhandle, where the helium operation’s staff of 165 will be whittled to a skeleton crew of about three dozen in the next few years, there has long been a sense of local pride in the program and outrage over the national scorn heaped upon it. ”The public’s been misinformed,” said Trooper Barker, a worker at the plant. ”They think it’s all some big joke about putting gas in blimps. Well, I’ve never once had a blimp fly out here and say, ‘O.K., fill ‘er up.’ ” Mr. Barker said that once private industry took over the helium, it would find ways to raise the price, an opinion widely shared in Amarillo. ”If NASA calls tonight and says, ‘We need 20 tank cars,’ we’ll get it out of our plant tonight,” said Terry Byrd, the production and maintenance manager, during a tour of the site. ”Private industry might charge a premium to do that.”
The helium program has had its defenders over the years, but the widespread national criticism has often made them seem to be voices in the wilderness. In a column two years ago, Gregory Curtis, the editor of Texas Monthly magazine, said that the derision was undeserved and that the helium conservation program was ”in fact an example of government working at its best.” Mr. Curtis said workers and managers at the helium program were ”intelligent, efficient and proud of their work, exactly the opposite of the thick and lazy bureaucrats Federal
workers are often said to be.”
The program has often been on the verge of elimination. In 1993, Bill Sarpalius, a Democrat who was Amarillo’s Congressman, persuaded President Clinton to keep the program alive. The President, struggling to gather a majority for his budget bill, spoke to Mr. Sarpalius four times on the day of the vote. ”Sure I talked to the President about helium,” Mr. Sarpalius, who was later defeated for re-election, said at the time. ”I talk to everyone I can in the Government about helium. And when I had the opportunity to explain to him that this was not really a billion-dollar loss, that this is a program that makes money for the Federal Government, that there’s another side to this picture, he was fascinated by it. He was really interested in helium.”
Mr. Sarpalius voted with the President, and the program was spared another year. But in 1996, with a conservative Republican Congressman, William M. Thornberry, now representing Amarillo and sentiment rising against the program, its gradual elimination was approved. Sometime around 2015, all the helium now in the Federal reserve is expected to be owned by private industry. ”There will be savings,” said Representative Cox, who is the father of 3- and 4-year-olds. ”We won’t know how much until my kids are out of college.”
MACY’S DAY PARADE HOARDING
Helium Demand Ballooning / Oct. 19, 2007
The worldwide shortage of helium is resulting in rising prices and tight supplies for party supply stores, but it won’t deflate Macy’s annual tradition of floating gigantic characters down Broadway in New York City this Thanksgiving. An international helium shortage, warned about for years, has become more evident recently, industry experts said, as rising global demands for the lighter-than-air, nonflammable gas mean short supplies for low-priority, consumer-level uses. While helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, it is hard to find on Earth, where it is a byproduct of radioactive decay underground. Here, helium is extracted from natural gas. While all natural gas contains at least trace quantities of helium, the gas is distilled from only about seven percent of the natural gas extracted from the ground, and only a few plants worldwide have the capability of separating helium from other gases and purifying it. In the US, purified helium is commercially recovered from natural gas deposits mostly in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. It was first discovered in 1903 when an exploratory well in Kansas produced a gas that “refused” to burn. Some of the richest sources are under the Texas Panhandle.
Most people’s familiarity with helium may be through its use in festive balloons, which accounts for about seven percent of the helium market worldwide, but the vast majority of supplies of the gas are for more high-tech applications. Helium is essential for things that require its unique properties — its inertness, its incredibly low “boiling point” (-451.48 °F) and its high thermal conductivity. It exists as a gas except under extreme conditions. At temperatures close to absolute zero (-459.7 °F), helium is a fluid; most materials are solid when cooled to such low temperatures. Liquid helium is used to supercool magnets in MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines, representing 20 percent of all helium use globally. Liquid helium is also used to cool some thermographic cameras, which detect heat instead of visible light and are used by search-and-rescue teams can locate people among rubble or through smoke. Another 17 percent of the helium produced globally is used to provide an inert gas shield for laser welding.
Other applications of helium include: in supersonic wind tunnels; to provide lift for high-altitude scientific research balloons; to pressurize space-shuttle fuel tanks; in fiber optics, semiconductor, computer chip and flat-panel display manufacturing; as a protective gas in growing silicon and germanium crystals and in titanium and zirconium production; to create a nitrogen-free atmosphere, when mixed with oxygen, for deep-sea divers so they won’t suffer from “the bends;” in the study of superconductivity and to create superconductive magnets for particle physics research; and in metallurgy and analytical chemistry and in leak detection. Because helium won’t become radioactive, it is also used as a cooling medium for nuclear reactors.
The first laser invented, a helium-neon laser, is used today in laser eye surgery and laser pointers. The shortage is a result of a “perfect storm” of problems, with a new plant in Algeria ramping up production later than anticipated and with half the expected capacity, a plant in Qatar coming online slower than expected, and the world’s largest source of commercial helium, the Exxon Mobil plant in Wyoming, operating at only 80 to 85 percent of capacity because of plant problems. Also, the Bureau of Land Manaqement (BLM), which provides crude helium to the refiners that supply about 40 percent of US helium production, has put restrictions on how much crude helium refiners can take out of the BLM pipeline to process, Phil Kornbluth, executive vice president of Matheson Tri-Gas Global Helium in Basking Ridge, N.J., said on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” program last week.
The US government became interested in helium during World War I as a safe, noncombustible alternative to hydrogen for use in buoyant aircraft. In 1925 Congress created a Federal Helium Program to ensure that the gas would be available to the government for defense needs. The Bureau of Mines constructed and operated a large helium extraction and purification plant just north of Amarillo beginning in 1929. From 1929-1960, the federal government was the only domestic producer of helium. Because demand for helium increased during and after World War II, the government began offering incentives to private natural gas producers to strip helium from the gas and sell it to the government. Some of this helium was used for research, the NASA space program and other applications, but most was injected into a storage facility known as the Federal Helium Reserve.
By 1990 private demand for helium far exceeded federal demand, and the 1996 Helium Privatization Act redefined the government’s role in helium production. The BLM was given the responsibility of operating the Federal Helium Reserve and providing enriched crude helium to private refiners. The BLM’s facility near Amarillo provides crude helium to refiners that supply about 40 percent of helium supplies in the US, and almost 35 percent of the world’s helium production. The government’s strategic stockpile of helium in Amarillo, which held a three-year worldwide supply, is currently being sold off and will be mostly gone by 2015, Kornbluth said.
Under the 1996 Helium Privatization Act, by 2015 the secretary of the interior is to sell 850 million standard cubic meters (scm) from the Federal Helium Reserve, leaving 17 million scm, which represents a less than two-year supply. The Federal Helium Program’s original purpose, in 1925, was to ensure supplies of helium to the federal government for defense, research, and medical purposes. Over time, the program evolved into a conservation program with a primary goal of supplying the government with high-grade helium for high-tech research and aerospace purposes.
Party supply stores and florists around the country are complaining about increased helium prices and short supplies and its affect on their bottom lines. “It’s been affecting us since September 2006, and lately it’s been getting worse,” Lisa Dyer-Love, manager of Cook’s Balloonery in Westerville, Ohio, told the Columbus Dispatch. “The price of helium has gone up several times in the past year,” Matt Johnson, manager of Gases Plus, which supplies helium to party stores, car dealers and other consumers in Montana, told the Billings Gazette. “On average, when there’s been a price increase, it’s been 15 to 20 percent.” In September, industrial gas companies in Japan announced they planned to cut helium gas supplies by as much as 30 percent following significant shortages from US suppliers, a move that could have a detrimental impact on semiconductor manufacturing and electronics production in that country.
Earlier this month, Worthington Cylinders, a Columbus, Ohio-based supplier of pressure cylinders worldwide, announced a 6 percent price increase on all of its portable party kits, called Balloon Time Helium Balloon Kits, effective Nov. 1. “The current short supply and increased demand for helium has resulted in significantly higher helium prices. As a result, the company is forced to pass on its first price increase to the market in several years,” said Dusty McClintock, Worthington Cylinders vice president of sales. “The bottom line in terms of helium supply is that there is very little excess helium refining capacity, and domestic supplies of crude helium are growing ever tighter. Until overseas plants are fully online and/or additional plants are built, we’re potentially facing additional supply disruptions, if not shortages,” stated Leslie Theiss, manager of the BLM Amarillo field office in a January 2007 article on the BLM Web site. “For 350 days last year, the BLM’s crude helium enrichment facility was operating at full capacity, supplying more than 6 million cubic feet a day or 2.1 billion cubic feet per year. We can’t increase production because this would result in adverse impacts to the gas field, wells, compressors and other equipment.”
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade already has enough helium stockpiled to keep its balloons flying this November, Director of Media Relations Elina Kazan told the media recently. Macy’s has faced a helium shortage before — in 2006, parade organizers reportedly decided to use fewer balloons as a result. Also, when the gas was unexpectedly unavailable in 1958, parade organizers filled the balloons with air and suspended them from cranes, according to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Web site.
There may be relief coming, however. Gas companies Air Products and Matheson Tri-Gas announced this week they will build a liquid helium production plant near Big Piney, Wyoming, with an initial capacity of 200 million standard cubic feet per year. Production at the plant is expected to begin in 2009. The plant will be the 10th liquid helium plant operating in the US, and the first new US facility since 2000, the companies said. The facility would process natural gas from the Riley Ridge Field in Wyoming, the second largest helium-rich natural gas field in the US. Riley Ridge is believed to contain sufficient helium reserves to support production for decades. “We are enthusiastic about developing the helium reserves at Riley Ridge. Bringing on this new source, with very long-lived helium reserves, will enable us to further diversify our helium supply and enhance our ability to reliably serve our worldwide customers,” said John Van Sloun, general manager, Helium and Rare Gases, for Air Products. “We continue to see tightness in the supply of helium in the global market. The initial helium volumes expected from Riley Ridge in 2009 are relatively small, but this important new facility can produce additional product to help meet growing global demand.” Also, it was announced last month that Australia’s first-ever helium production plant will be built in the country’s Northern Territory at Darwin after a deal was reached between gas companies there. It is believed that the project will have the capacity to meet the entire country’s helium needs and also supply export markets.
The Impact of Selling the Federal Helium Reserve
The Helium Privatization Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-273) directs the Department of the Interior to begin liquidating the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve by 2005 in a manner consistent with minimum market disruption and at a price given by a formula specified in the act. It also mandates that the Department of the Interior enter into appropriate arrangements with the National Academy of Science to study and report on whether such disposal of helium reserves will have a substantial adverse effect on U.S. scientific, technical, biomedical, or national security interests.
This report is the product of that mandate. To provide context, the committee has examined the helium market and the helium industry as a whole to determine how helium users would be affected under various scenarios for selling the reserve within the act s constraints. The Federal Helium Reserve, the Bush Dome reservoir, and the Cliffside facility are mentioned throughout this report. It is important to recognize that they are distinct entities. The Federal Helium Reserve is federally owned crude helium gas that currently resides in the Bush Dome reservoir. The Cliffside facility includes the storage facility on the Bush Dome reservoir and the associated buildings pipeline.
Products, research rely on element
by Bob Secter / November 19, 2007
Helium, the second most plentiful element in the universe, is suddenly in short supply on this planet, and that means soaring prices for a lot of things. “Some customers have told me they’re just not going to sell balloons anymore because they can’t get helium,” said Chicago party wholesaler Lee Brody. “Everybody’s scrambling.” As raw materials crises go, the helium shortage clearly takes a back seat to the global oil crunch, but its repercussions go well beyond the cost of decorating birthdays or bar mitzvahs. The shortage shines a light on an obscure federal helium program critical to feeding the world’s growing appetite. To most of us, helium is just a novelty gas that floats blimps, bobs huge latex whales over car dealers and makes your voice sound like Daffy Duck when inhaled (which experts say is a really bad idea that
could lead to a collapsed lung). Demand for the gas has taken off in industry and scientific research in recent years, and the helium squeeze is being felt everywhere from university physics labs to plants in India, China, Taiwan and Korea that make today’s hottest consumer products. Japanese helium suppliers recently warned customers in the electronics industry to prepare for supply cuts of up to 30 percent.
Helium is less dense than air, which explains why it makes balloons rise. Sound waves travel faster through it. It is also noncombustible and can be liquefied to temperatures approaching absolute zero, properties that render it ideal for cooling metals that produce superconductivity or in processes that throw off a lot of heat. It is used to make flat-panel TVs, semiconductors, optical fibers and medical MRIs, and it toughens industrial welds. NASA uses a full train car load to pressurize a liquid fuel rocket. The U.S. government is the world’s No. 1 source, sucking helium out of a Texas reservoir it began filling after World War I when dirigibles were thought to be the coming thing. That stockpile will be empty in a decade, and new overseas sources have been slow to develop. “We’re pedaling as fast as we can here, but we just can’t produce enough,” said Leslie Theiss, manager of the Federal Helium Reserve near Amarillo. “One-third of the world’s helium comes from our little place here. That’s kind of frightening.”
In today’s increasingly interdependent global marketplace, the balloon business finds itself at the bottom of the helium supply chain. What began as spot shortages last year have grown chronic this year, said Kaufman, president of the International Balloon Association, a party industry trade group. Kaufman is also co-owner of M.K. Brody, a Chicago party wholesaler that often goes through 100 cylinders of helium in a week. The firm’s distributor recently put it on a weekly allotment of 33 cylinders. A standard tank with enough helium to blow up 400 average-size balloons cost $40 five years ago but $88 today, Kaufman said. He’s been told to expect another 50 percent price increase before Christmas. Cindi Cronin, who runs a Chicago party-decor business, said it’s become kind of a scavenger hunt lately to find helium. To stretch her supplies and save money, Cronin has started diluting the helium in balloon decorations with 40 percent air. “They still float, but not as long,” she said.
Helium is abundant in space, a byproduct of the nuclear fusion of stars. On Earth, it is locked largely in natural gas deposits and typically found only at trace levels too expensive to strip out and refine. By a quirk of geology, some natural gas fields in this country are blessed with robust helium concentrations. And that has made the United States to helium production what Saudi Arabia is to oil. Some of the richest sources are in the Texas panhandle, and that is where the federal government began stockpiling the gas in 1925. The Army considered it nearly as good as hydrogen to bring giant airships aloft and much safer, an assessment tragically borne out in 1937 when the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg erupted in flames over New Jersey and killed 36 people. In the 1990s, Congress decided the government should get out of the helium business. Federal law requires the stockpile to be sold off in about 10 years.
Private industry has been slow to pick up the slack. New production facilities in the Middle East have been plagued with problems and not produced hoped-for yields. “Demand is increasing overseas, and people are starting to get nervous,” said Maura Garvey, director of market research for Cryogas International, a Massachusetts-based trade journal that closely follows helium markets. She predicts helium supplies will remain tight through at least 2010 and possibly well beyond. Back in Amarillo, Theiss fears the day of reckoning for world helium supplies might be coming a lot faster than for oil or other nonrenewable commodities. “To our knowledge, nothing has been discovered to date that has the reserves we have here,” she said. “Exports have increased 50 percent in the last five years. If you’ve got a finite amount and a lot more suddenly starts going overseas, do the math. It’s not going to be good when we’re done here.”