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Thread: Solutions to the Helium Shortage?

  1. #1 Solutions to the Helium Shortage? 
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    Hello everyone,
    I recently was assigned an assignment at my university to analyze the impending helium shortage crisis, and how to stave it. I thought I would come here to find an avenue for constructive criticism by a community that is geared perfectly for the sort of feedback I'd love. Below is an excerpt from my written assignment that incorporates my suggestions for staving a helium shortage. The solutions span from more practical and tangible approaches that can be executed today, to more conceptual and futuristic approaches. Any suggestions would be much appreciated. Thanks so much in advance.

    The helium solution will involve a multifacetedapproach that will involve legislative solutions as well as technological andsystemic innovation with concordant sociological shifts to foster conservationand reduction of inefficient consumption. Helium supply is expected to meet demand onlyuntil around 2020.

    Regardingapproaches to solutions that can be adapted now, conservation and heliumrecycling is a couple of measures that can be implemented to maintain currentsupply levels. Due to currentlegislation, helium is being sold to private companies at dirt-cheap levels,offering no sort of incentive to recycle the gas after use. The solution to immediate supply problemstoday can be to both incentivize helium recycling by intervening and upping theprice of helium (or to allow the natural laws of the market to take hold bywatching helium supplies dwindle and have the price of helium naturally climband incentivize recycling.) Industrialmachinery exists that allow for the capturing, refinement, and re-collection ofused helium after it is consumed during leak test applications, which are usedoften in the HVAC industry for example to test gaseous component leakage rates. For example, the Vacuum InstrumentCorporation (VIC) has created an industrial-grade mechanism that effectivelyreduces helium leakage in industrial leak-test processes, and promises torecycle the gas with up to 98% efficiency. Although the technology itself of course has an initial cost, mostestimates quantify the return on investment period to be around two years toeighteen months. Notable entities suchas NASA currently do not utilize helium recycling technology en masse as aresult of its cheap supply price, but NASA should be serving as a leader inhelium conservation to encourage recycling by other entities, especially sinceit is a major consumer of helium.

    Regardlessof the approach, recycling and conservation needs to be advocated. Although mines and reservoirs can beestablished in other helium containing areas such as Poland, Russia, andAlgeria, a vast majority of helium reserves are in the geographical UnitedStates. It thus falls on the actions ofthe U.S. Government to funnel and control supply to prevent an unexpectedglobal spike in helium price that will undoubtedly jar the industries thatutilize the gas.

    Thereare also solutions which go beyond the conventional solution of heliumrecycling. These solutions utilize more advanced technology, some of which hasyet to be perfected or even widely implemented. Two such solutions include helium mining on the moon and other planetsand the synthetic production of helium. These two solutions are consideredlong-term solutions.

    Themoon contains vast amounts of helium-3, the most usable isotope of helium.Helium-3 is a very important part of many processes such as nuclear fusion,medical lung imaging, and cryogenics. While the earth only contains limitedamounts of He-3, which are quickly diminishing, the moon could sustain oursupply of He-3 for many years. It is estimated that one space flight couldcarry 25 tons of He-3 to earth, which is enough to power the entire U.S. forone year through He-3 nuclear fusion. Also, mining the moon would be a gatewayto other helium enriched planets such as Saturn and Uranus. The problem withthis solution is the cost. It is already incredibly expensive to fly to space,and it is unfathomable how much it would be to set up mines on the moon. Thereare no laws governing space meaning countries would mine with no regard fortheir impact on space and other planets. Though the moon is a good source ofhelium, there may be unforeseen repercussions with tapping into availablehelium gas reserves.

    Anothersolution is the synthetic production of helium in a laboratory. Helium, andmore importantly He-3, can be extracted from tritium decay. Tritium decay isproduced by bombarding the nuclei of lithium, boron, or nitrogen atoms withneutrons to change the atomic makeup of these elements. Currently, He-3 isextracted from tritium decay in unused nuclear weapons. The problems areassociated with this solution are related to availability issues. Lithium,boron, and nitrogen are not in unlimited supply on earth and tritium productionrequires eighteen times the lithium, boron, or nitrogen than He-3 that isproduced. Thus they could only be used to produce a limited amount of He-3.Also the storage of tritium is extremely expensive, costing more than He-3 isworth to produce. Similarly, He-3 iscreated from deuterium-deuterium nuclear fusion, while He-4, the most abundanthelium isotope is created from suggested deuterium-tritium nuclear fusion, anenergy-generating that is suggested to be economically viable within the nextforty years. Should these methodsproliferate, helium would be naturally generated as a result.


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  3. #2  
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    I think your paper should start by identifying the problem, rather than jump right into the solution. You do mention that the supply is only expected to meet demand until 2020, but more detail would be good. Some questions I had are: Where does the supply come from now, and why is it limited? What is the current legislation that is artificially depressing the price? What is helium used for, and why should we be concerned about the shortage?


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  4. #3  
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    Sealedfate mentions that this is an excerpt. I trust that he has dealt with all the points you raise in the material he has not included.

    Sf, the introduction of He3 production for fusion power confuses the central argument you are addressing. We do not currrently use He3 specifically for any purpose, so suddenly introducing it as the solution to the current impending problem does not flow logically.

    Also your solutions need to be defined with greater clarity. A suite of bullet points with later expansion might do the trick.
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  5. #4  
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ophiolite
    Sealedfate mentions that this is an excerpt. I trust that he has dealt with all the points you raise in the material he has not included.

    Sf, the introduction of He3 production for fusion power confuses the central argument you are addressing. We do not currrently use He3 specifically for any purpose, so suddenly introducing it as the solution to the current impending problem does not flow logically.

    Also your solutions need to be defined with greater clarity. A suite of bullet points with later expansion might do the trick.
    Thanks for the feedback. I should mention that I'm rather limited in terms of length so I cant go into too much detail (I've hit the cap already.) I also do suggest using He-3 as a substitute for some of the applications we currently use He-4 for.

    Any suggestions on my solutions themselves? Commentary, etc.?

    Thanks.
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  6. #5  
    Forum Isotope Bunbury's Avatar
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    I wasn’t aware of the impending helium shortage, but a quick google seems to confirm that it is a real issue, and that politics is involved.

    The reason for the low price is that the government’s strategic reserve has to be sold off rather quickly - is that it? So you are correct in thinking that a change in the law could be effective in raising the price to a more realistic market level. Take the strategic reserve off the market and demand would have to match the supply of new production (which is almost entirely from natural gas wells).

    Then recycling would become more attractive, production from natural gas wells would increase (a lot of it is currently vented), and there would be more incentive for research into alternatives. These are near term practical effects that in my opinion would be worth expanding on rather than focusing on the moon and synthetic helium, neither of which seems very realistic to me.
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  7. #6  
    Universal Mind John Galt's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by sealedfate
    I should mention that I'm rather limited in terms of length so I cant go into too much detail (I've hit the cap already.)
    Then don't waffle. For example you say

    "Regarding approaches to solutions that can be adapted now, conservation and helium recycling is a couple of measures that can be implemented to maintain current supply levels. Due to current legislation, helium is being sold to private companies at dirt-cheap levels, offering no sort of incentive to recycle the gas after use."

    That took 52 words.

    You can say the same thing in 24 words:

    These solutions could be applied immediately, to maintain current supply:
    -conservation
    -recycling

    Yet low prices, dictated by present legislation, remove any incentive to recycle.


    That is less than half the length of your version, nothing is lost in the reduction, and the message is arguably clearer.
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  8. #7 Helium Shortage 
    Forum Freshman Solid State's Avatar
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    Two thing that need to happen to reduce the urgency of this issue...

    1) Helium balloons have to go
    2) All chromatographers have to switch to hydrogen carrier gas for all detectors except some TCDs and Helium Pulsed DIDs (The runs are faster anyway)
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  9. #8  
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    Solutions to the Helium Shortage?
    Kill all clowns.
    Disclaimer: I do not declare myself to be an expert on ANY subject. If I state something as fact that is obviously wrong, please don't hesitate to correct me. I welcome such corrections in an attempt to be as truthful and accurate as possible.

    "Gullibility kills" - Carl Sagan
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