"Long before it's in the papers"
June 04, 2013


Shrinking helium reserves may threaten more than kids’ play

Jan. 5, 2008
Courtesy Washington University in St. Louis
and World Science staff

Helium, the el­e­ment that lifts things like bal­loons, spir­its and voice ranges, is be­ing de­plet­ed so quickly that the world’s larg­est re­serve of it is ex­pected to run out by 2015, sci­en­tists say.

Courtesy Washington University in St. Louis

That 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.

“He­li­um’s use in sci­ence is ex­tremely broad, but its most im­por­tant use is as a coolan­t,” said So­bot­ka, a spe­cial­ist in nu­clear chem­is­try and phys­ics who works 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 “he­li­um is non-renewable and ir­re­place­able,” as it can’t be ma­n­u­fac­tured in sig­nif­i­cant amounts, So­bot­ka said. “All should make bet­ter ef­forts to re­cy­cle it.” He­li­um’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. 

Drift away

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 Earth’s en­tire life­span, 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 Earth’s man­tle and drifts in­to the at­mos­phere, where there is about five parts per mil­lion of it. This he­li­um, along with any let in­to the at­mos­phere by users, drifts up and is even­tu­ally lost to Earth.

“When we use what has been made over the ap­prox­i­mate 4.5 bil­lion of years the Earth has been around, we will run out,” So­bot­ka said. “We can­not get too sig­nif­i­cant quan­ti­ties of he­li­um from the sun — which can be viewed as a he­li­um fac­to­ry 93 mil­lion miles away — nor will we ev­er pro­duce he­li­um in an­ywhere near the quan­ti­ties we need from Earth-bound facto­ries.” Nu­clear re­ac­tors can make some he­li­um, but not nearly enough, he added; sci­en­tists haven’t even ap­proached min­ing he­li­um out of the air be­cause costs are pro­hib­i­tive.

Un­like any oth­er el­e­ment, or­di­nary he­li­um, which con­tains two pro­tons and two neu­trons, be­co­mes a liq­uid be­low the tempe­rature 4.2 Kel­vin. That’s just four Cel­si­us de­grees above the low­est tempe­rature pos­si­ble, 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 world’s he­li­um supply lies in a re­serve out­side Am­a­ril­lo in the Tex­as Pan­han­dle. It’s an ar­ea bet­ter known for the lo­cales of Lar­ry Mc­Murtry’s nov­els, such as “The Last Pic­ture Show,” and “Tex­asville,” than as an el­e­mental fac­to­ry farm. 

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. That’s be­cause he­li­um is a reb­el, a lon­er that does­n’t nor­mally com­bine with oth­er atoms, as hy­dro­gen does, So­bot­ka said.

Helium is “the most ‘no­ble’ of gas­es, mean­ing it’s very sta­ble and non-reactive for the most part,” So­bot­ka said. El­e­ments com­bine by shar­ing elec­trons, the sub­a­tom­ic par­t­i­cles that car­ry elec­tric charge. But he­li­um is “a very tightly bound atom” 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. It’s mar­keted in Aus­tral­ia and Al­ge­ria. And Rus­sia has the world’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 world’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 its main use was for di­ri­gi­bles. Be­cause he­li­um is non-flammable, its use pre­vented a re­peat of the 1937 Hin­den­burg trag­e­dy, in which a hy­dro­gen-filled 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, So­bot­ka said.

Tell it like it is

“The 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?” So­bot­ka said. “This takes long-term vi­sion be­cause pre­s­ent mar­ket forc­es are not suf­fi­cient to com­pel pru­dent prac­tice.”

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.

“When they stick that straw in­to the ground to suck out oil and gas, the he­li­um comes out, and if it does­n’t get cap­tured it drifts in­to the at­mos­phere and is lost,” So­bot­ka said. “He­li­um pro­duc­tion is a side in­dus­try to oil and nat­u­ral gas, an en­deav­or that no­body wants to lose mon­ey on.”

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 as gas, re­turn it to the company that sold it to them and get a mon­e­tary re­turn, just as in a de­pos­it on a bot­tle. “We have to be think­ing of these things,” he said. “Up to now, the is­sue of­ten has­n’t ris­en to the lev­el that it’s im­por­tant. It’s a prob­lem for the next genera­t­ion of sci­en­tists.”

* * *

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The element that lifts things like balloons, spirits and voice ranges is being depleted so quickly that the world’s largest reserve—in Texas—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. “helium’s use in science is extremely broad, but its most important use is as a coolant,” 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 “helium is non-renewable and irreplaceable,” as it can’t be manufactured in significant amounts, Sobotka said. “All should make better efforts to recycle it.” helium’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. Drift away 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 Earth’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 Earth’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. “When we use what has been made over the approximate 4.5 billion of years the Earth has been around, we will run out,” Sobotka said . “We cannot get too significant quantities of helium from the sun — which can be viewed as a helium factory 93 million miles away — nor will we ever produce helium in anywhere near the quantities we need from Earth-bound factories.” 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. That’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 world’s helium supply lies in a reserve outside Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle. It’s an area better known for the locales of Larry McMurtry’s novels, such as “The Last Picture Show,” and “Texasville,” than as an elemental factory farm. Scientists haven’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. That’s because helium is a rebel, a loner that doesn’t normally combine with other atoms, as hydrogen does, Sobotka said. “It’s the most ‘noble’ of gases, meaning it’s very stable and non-reactive for the most part,” Sobotka said. Elements combine by sharing electrons, the subatomic particles that carry electric charge. But helium is “a very tightly bound atom” 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. It’s marketed in Australia and Algeria. And Russia has the world’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 world’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 “The 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?” Sobotka said. “This takes long-term vision because present market forces are not sufficient to compel prudent practice.” 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. “When they stick that straw into the ground to suck out oil and gas, the helium comes out, and if it doesn’t get captured it drifts into the atmosphere and is lost,” Sobotka said. “Helium production is a side industry to oil and natural gas, an endeavor that nobody wants to lose money on.” 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. “We have to be thinking of these things,” he said. “Up to now, the issue often hasn’t risen to the level that it’s important. It’s a problem for the next generation of scientists.”