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Shrinking helium reserves may threaten more than kidsâ€™ play
Jan. 5, 2008
Courtesy Washington University in St. Louis
and World Science staff
Helium, the elÂeÂment that lifts things like balÂloons, spirÂits and voice ranges, is beÂing deÂpletÂed so quickly that the worldâ€™s largÂest reÂserve
of it is exÂpected to run out by 2015, sciÂenÂtists say.
That would deÂflate more than the GoodÂyear blimp and parÂty faÂvors. Its largÂer imÂpact is on sciÂence and techÂnolÂoÂgy, acÂcordÂing to Lee
SoÂbotÂka of WashÂingÂton UnÂiversÂity in St. LouÂis.
Courtesy Washington University in St. Louis
â€œHeÂliÂumâ€™s use in sciÂence is exÂtremely broad, but its most imÂporÂtant use is as a coolanÂt,â€ said
SoÂbotÂka, a speÂcialÂist in nuÂclear chemÂisÂtry and physÂics who
works at sevÂerÂal naÂtÂional labÂoÂrÂaÂtoÂries. LargÂer heÂliÂum conÂsumers, such as these, genÂerÂally are equipped to reÂcyÂcle it,
SoÂbotÂka said; not so for many smaller-scale users.
Yet â€œheÂliÂum is non-renewable and irÂreÂplaceÂable,â€ as it canâ€™t be maÂnÂuÂfacÂtured in sigÂnifÂiÂcant amounts,
SoÂbotÂka said. â€œAll should make betÂter efÂforts to reÂcyÂcle it.â€
HeÂliÂumâ€™s apÂplicaÂtÂions, he added, inÂclude nuÂclear magÂnetÂic resÂoÂnance, mass specÂtrosÂcoÂpy, weldÂing, fiÂber opÂtics and comÂputÂer miÂcrochip proÂducÂtion.
NAÂSA uses large amounts to presÂsurÂize space shutÂtle fuÂel tanks.Â
The heÂliÂum on Earth has built up over bilÂlions of years from the deÂcay, or disÂinÂtegraÂtÂion, of the natÂuÂral elÂeÂments uraÂniÂum and thoÂriÂum,
SoÂbotÂka said. The proÂcess ocÂcurs in supeÂr-slow moÂtion, he added. For exÂamÂple, the uraÂniÂum varÂiÂant, or isoÂtope,
uraÂniÂum-238 is parÂticÂuÂlarly imÂporÂtant for heÂliÂum proÂducÂtion. In Earthâ€™s enÂtire lifeÂspan,
SoÂbotÂka said, only half of the uraÂniÂum-238 atoms have deÂcayed, each yieldÂing eight heÂliÂum atoms.
As uraÂniÂum and thoÂriÂum deÂcay, some of the heÂliÂum is trapped along with natÂuÂral gas deÂposits in cerÂtain geÂoÂlogÂiÂcal formaÂtÂions,
SoÂbotÂka said. Some of the proÂduced heÂliÂum seeps out of the Earthâ€™s manÂtle and drifts inÂto the atÂmosÂphere, where there is about five parts per milÂlion of
it. This heÂliÂum, along with any let inÂto the atÂmosÂphere by users, drifts up and is evenÂtuÂally lost to Earth.
â€œWhen we use what has been made over the apÂproxÂiÂmate 4.5 bilÂlion of years the Earth has been around, we will run out,â€
SoÂbotÂka said. â€œWe canÂnot get too sigÂnifÂiÂcant quanÂtiÂties of heÂliÂum from the sun â€” which can be viewed as a heÂliÂum facÂtoÂry 93 milÂlion miles away â€” nor will we evÂer proÂduce heÂliÂum in anÂywhere near the
quanÂtiÂties we need from Earth-bound factoÂries.â€ NuÂclear reÂacÂtors can make some heÂliÂum, but not nearly enough, he
added; sciÂenÂtists havenâ€™t even apÂproached minÂing heÂliÂum out of the air beÂcause costs are proÂhibÂiÂtive.
UnÂlike any othÂer elÂeÂment, orÂdiÂnary heÂliÂum, which conÂtains two proÂtons and two neuÂtrons, beÂcoÂmes a liqÂuid beÂlow the tempeÂrature 4.2 KelÂvin. Thatâ€™s just four
CelÂsiÂus deÂgrees above the lowÂest tempeÂrature posÂsiÂble, abÂsoÂlute zeÂro. When one puts an obÂject next to liqÂuid heÂliÂum, enÂerÂgy is exÂtracted from the obÂject, makÂing it colder. The enÂerÂgy exÂtracted from the obÂject vaÂporÂizes the heÂliÂum. It is this heÂliÂum vaÂpor which,
SoÂbotÂka claims, should alÂways be reÂcapÂtured, to be reÂcyÂcled for fuÂture use.
Much of the worldâ€™s heÂliÂum supply lies in a reÂserve outÂside AmÂaÂrilÂlo in the TexÂas PanÂhanÂdle. Itâ€™s an arÂea betÂter known for the loÂcales of LarÂry McÂMurtryâ€™s novÂels, such as â€œThe Last PicÂture Show,â€ and â€œTexÂasville,â€ than as an elÂeÂmental facÂtoÂry farm.Â
A rebÂel, a lonÂer
Both hyÂdroÂgen and heÂliÂum, the first two elÂeÂments on the PerÂiÂodÂic TaÂble of ElÂeÂments, are abunÂdant in the unÂiverse (aÂbout 92 peÂrcent and about 8 peÂrcent of the atoms, reÂspecÂtiveÂly). But heÂliÂum is rare on Earth. Thatâ€™s beÂcause heÂliÂum is a rebÂel, a lonÂer that doesÂnâ€™t norÂmally comÂbine with othÂer atoms, as hyÂdroÂgen does,
Helium is â€œthe most â€˜noÂbleâ€™ of gasÂes, meanÂing itâ€™s very staÂble and non-reactive for the most part,â€
SoÂbotÂka said. ElÂeÂments comÂbine by sharÂing elecÂtrons, the subÂaÂtomÂic parÂtÂiÂcles that carÂry elecÂtric charge. But heÂliÂum is â€œa very tightly bound atomâ€ that clings closely to its elecÂtrons, preÂventing such partÂnerÂships, he exÂplained.
In adÂdiÂtion to the TexÂas panÂhanÂdle, heÂliÂum can be found in small reÂgions of ColÂoÂradÂo, KanÂsas and OkÂlaÂhoÂma,
SoÂbotÂka said. Itâ€™s marÂketed in AusÂtralÂia and AlÂgeÂria. And RusÂsia has the worldâ€™s largÂest reÂserves of natÂuÂral gas, where heÂliÂum cerÂtainly exÂists. But there is no push to marÂket it, as for the short term, supÂplies are adÂeÂquate, though inÂcreasÂingly costÂly.
SoÂbotÂka beÂlieves that RusÂsia will be the worldâ€™s maÂjor source in 30 years.
LiqÂuid heÂliÂum costs about $5 per liÂter, havÂing gone up more than 50 peÂrcent over the past year as deÂmand gradÂuÂally outÂstrips the supÂplies, he said. He citÂed the withÂdrawÂal of some comÂpaÂnies from the marÂketplace, and the emerÂgence of othÂers not yet in proÂducÂtion, as the drivÂing force beÂhind highÂer prices.
HeÂliÂum capÂture in the UnÂited States beÂgan afÂter World War I, when
its main use was for diÂriÂgiÂbles. BeÂcause heÂliÂum is non-flammable, its use preÂvented a reÂpeat of the 1937 HinÂdenÂburg tragÂeÂdy, in which a
hyÂdroÂgen-filled GerÂman airÂship burst inÂto flames. The U.S. goÂvernment ran the heÂliÂum inÂdusÂtry for 70 years, but since the
mid-â€™90s it has been in the doÂmain of the oil and natÂuÂral gas inÂdusÂtries,
Tell it like it is
â€œThe goÂvernment had the good viÂsion to store heÂliÂum, and the quesÂtion now is: Will inÂdusÂtry have the viÂsion to capÂture it when exÂtractÂing natÂuÂral gas, and conÂsumers the wisÂdom to capÂture and reÂcyÂcle?â€
SoÂbotÂka said. â€œThis takes long-term viÂsion beÂcause preÂsÂent marÂket forcÂes are not sufÂfiÂcient to comÂpel pruÂdent pracÂtice.â€
HeÂliÂum plays secÂond fidÂdle to marÂketing oil and natÂuÂral gas,
SoÂbotÂka conÂtinÂued: much of it is lost in a proÂcess that reÂmoves nonÂcomÂbusÂtiÂble niÂtroÂgen and heÂliÂum from the prodÂuct of prime inÂterÂest.
â€œWhen they stick that straw inÂto the ground to suck out oil and gas, the heÂliÂum comes out, and if it doesÂnâ€™t get capÂtured it drifts inÂto the atÂmosÂphere and is lost,â€
SoÂbotÂka said. â€œHeÂliÂum proÂducÂtion is a side inÂdusÂtry to oil and natÂuÂral gas, an enÂdeavÂor that noÂbody wants to lose monÂey on.â€
LabÂoÂrÂaÂtoÂries worldÂwide could make betÂter atÂtempts at conÂservÂing heÂliÂum, he said. They can eiÂther use costly machines called liqÂueÂfiers that can capÂture, store and reÂliqÂueÂfy heÂliÂum on
site; or reÂsearchÂers can take capÂtured heÂliÂum as gas, reÂturn it to the company that sold it to them and
get a monÂeÂtary reÂturn, just as in a deÂposÂit on a botÂtle. â€œWe have to be thinkÂing of these things,â€ he said. â€œUp to now, the isÂsue ofÂten hasÂnâ€™t risÂen to the levÂel that itâ€™s imÂporÂtant. Itâ€™s a probÂlem for the next generaÂtÂion of sciÂenÂtists.â€
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The element that lifts things like balloons, spirits and voice ranges is being depleted so quickly that the worldâ€™s largest reserveâ€”in Texasâ€”is expected to run out of it by 2015, scientists say.
This would deflate more than the Goodyear blimp and party favors. Its larger impact is on science and technology, according to Lee Sobotka of Washington University in St. Louis.
â€œheliumâ€™s use in science is extremely broad, but its most important use is as a coolant,â€ said Sobotka, a specialist in nuclear chemistry and physics who collaborates with researchers at several national laboratories. Larger helium consumers, such as these, generally are equipped to recycle it, Sobotka said; not so for many smaller-scale users.
Yet â€œhelium is non-renewable and irreplaceable,â€ as it canâ€™t be manufactured in significant amounts, Sobotka said. â€œAll should make better efforts to recycle it.â€ heliumâ€™s applications, he added, include nuclear magnetic resonance, mass spectroscopy, welding, fiber optics and computer microchip production. NASA uses large amounts to pressurize space shuttle fuel tanks.
The helium on Earth has built up over billions of years from the decay, or disintegration, of the natural elements uranium and thorium, Sobotka said. The process occurs in super-slow motion, he added. For example, the uranium variant, or isotope, uranium-238 is particularly important for helium production. In Earthâ€™s entire life span, Sobotka said, only half of the uranium-238 atoms have decayed, each yielding eight helium atoms.
As uranium and thorium decay, some of the helium is trapped along with natural gas deposits in certain geological formations, Sobotka said. Some of the produced helium seeps out of the Earthâ€™s mantle and drifts into the atmosphere, where there is about five parts per million of helium. This helium, along with any let into the atmosphere by users, drifts up and is eventually lost to Earth.
â€œWhen we use what has been made over the approximate 4.5 billion of years the Earth has been around, we will run out,â€ Sobotka said . â€œWe cannot get too significant quantities of helium from the sun â€” which can be viewed as a helium factory 93 million miles away â€” nor will we ever produce helium in anywhere near the quantities we need from Earth-bound factories.â€ Nuclear reactors can make some helium, but not nearly enough, he added.
Unlike any other element, ordinary helium, which contains two protons and two neutrons, becomes a liquid below the temperature 4.2 Kelvin. Thatâ€™s just four celsius degrees above the lowest temperature possible, called absolute zero. When one puts an object next to liquid helium, energy is extracted from the object, making it colder. The energy extracted from the object vaporizes the helium. It is this helium vapor which, Sobotka claims, should always be recaptured, to be recycled for future use.
Much of the worldâ€™s helium supply lies in a reserve outside Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle. Itâ€™s an area better known for the locales of Larry McMurtryâ€™s novels, such as â€œThe Last Picture Show,â€ and â€œTexasville,â€ than as an elemental factory farm.
Scientists havenâ€™t even approached mining helium out of the air because costs are too prohibitive, Sobotka said.
A rebel, a loner
Both hydrogen and helium, the first two elements on the Periodic Table of Elements, are abundant in the universe (about 92 percent and about 8 percent of the atoms, respectively). But helium is rare on Earth. Thatâ€™s because helium is a rebel, a loner that doesnâ€™t normally combine with other atoms, as hydrogen does, Sobotka said.
â€œItâ€™s the most â€˜nobleâ€™ of gases, meaning itâ€™s very stable and non-reactive for the most part,â€ Sobotka said. Elements combine by sharing electrons, the subatomic particles that carry electric charge. But helium is â€œa very tightly bound atomâ€ that clings closely to its electrons, preventing such partnerships, he explained.
In addition to the Texas panhandle, helium can be found in small regions of Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma, Sobotka said. Itâ€™s marketed in Australia and Algeria. And Russia has the worldâ€™s largest reserves of natural gas, where helium certainly exists. But there is no push to market it, as for the short term, supplies are adequate, though increasingly costly. Sobotka believes that Russia will be the worldâ€™s major source in 30 years.
Liquid helium costs about $5 per liter, having gone up more than 50 percent over the past year as demand gradually outstrips the supplies, he said. He cited the withdrawal of some companies from the marketplace, and the emergence of others not yet in production, as the driving force behind higher prices.
Helium capture in the United States began after World War I, when the primary use of the gas was for dirigibles. Because helium is non-flammable, its use in balloons prevented a repeat of the 1937 Hindenburg tragedy, in which a German airship burst into flames. The U.S. government ran the helium industry for 70 years, but since the mid-90s it has been in the domain of the oil and natural gas industries.
Tell it like it is
â€œThe government had the good vision to store helium, and the question now is: Will industry have the vision to capture it when extracting natural gas, and consumers the wisdom to capture and recycle?â€ Sobotka said. â€œThis takes long-term vision because present market forces are not sufficient to compel prudent practice.â€
Helium plays second fiddle to marketing oil and natural gas, Sobotka continued: much of it is lost in a process that removes noncombustible nitrogen and helium from the product of prime interest.
â€œWhen they stick that straw into the ground to suck out oil and gas, the helium comes out, and if it doesnâ€™t get captured it drifts into the atmosphere and is lost,â€ Sobotka said. â€œHelium production is a side industry to oil and natural gas, an endeavor that nobody wants to lose money on.â€
Laboratories worldwide could make better attempts at conserving helium, he said. They can either use costly machines called liquefiers that can capture, store and reliquefy helium on site, or researchers can take captured helium in gas form, return it to the company that originally sold it to them and receive a monetary return, just as in a deposit on a bottle. â€œWe have to be thinking of these things,â€ he said. â€œUp to now, the issue often hasnâ€™t risen to the level that itâ€™s important. Itâ€™s a problem for the next generation of scientists.â€