Yes, there is a shortage of Helium and it will affect more than just balloons

Yes, there is a shortage of Helium and it will affect more than just balloons

Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, but it is not that abundant here on Earth, at least not in a form that we can use.

Over the past two decades, concerns about helium shortages have grown increasingly alarming. From 2011 to 2013, the helium industry faced deficits of 20%, and the same happened again in 2019, showing that this problem is far from being solved.

We're running out of helium, and this won't just mean fewer party balloons; Helium is used in several major industries, including medical imaging; our MRIs don't work without it.

Where is helium found?

It was on August 18, 1868, when researchers pointed their telescope towards an eclipse, discovering a then unknown element called helium. Helium, it turns out, is such an inert and elusive gas that it took them several decades to isolate it in a laboratory (in a landmark paper published in 1920 in Nature). Since then, we have learned quite a bit about helium. It is the second most abundant gas in the universe, used for a wide range of scientific activities (including searching for the elusive Higgs Boson), and yet it is very difficult to come by here on Earth.

Helium is extracted exclusively as a by-product of natural gas extraction. Most of the helium extracted from natural gas is believed to form from the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium in the granite rocks of the Earth's continental crust.

Helium has the smallest atomic radius of all the elements, making it very easy for it to move upward, fitting through the smallest of pores within rocks. However, there are some rocks (such as halite, the mineral form of salt) that can block the upward migration of helium, acting as a trap. This same type of trap is also effective at catching oil and natural gas, which are lightweight and also tend to flow upward.

Thus, helium pockets can be found where three main geological conditions are met:

  • The rocky basement is formed by granites or granite-like rocks rich in uranium and thorium;
  • It is not a system of fractures or fissures that allows helium to flow to the surface;
  • the structure has a waterproof cap consisting of rocks such as halite or anhydrite.

The nice thing about this is that the extraction of helium can be done by the same rough methods as natural gas, and then the gases can be separated. However, the separation process is expensive.

Helium generally makes up a tiny portion of natural gas, but in some areas, it can make up as much as 10% of natural gas. A helium content of at least 0.3% is considered necessary; otherwise, the separation process costs too much. Helium can also accumulate without natural gas, but it doesn't make much economic sense to extract it, especially since it is so difficult to store.

Unstoppable helium

Helium is extremely expensive and difficult to store; it just disappears no matter what we do.

To store and transport it, it must first be cooled to a temperature of -452 degrees Fahrenheit (-270 Celsius), making it the coldest substance on the planet. But it gets even worse: even at these extremely cold temperatures, the liquid slowly evaporates, and due to its structure, helium gas will escape from any container we know of. It is a noble gas and is a master of exhaust.

So if you want to store helium, your best bet is to turn to geology again. At the Federal Reserve in Amarillo, helium is compressed at the surface and injected into a layer of dolomite rock, 3,000 feet (914 meters). On top of these dolomite locks, there is a layer of halite (salt) that traps the helium in place. This is the best process we have available at the moment for storing helium and, as you can imagine, it is expensive and time consuming.

By 1995, the United States had collected 1 billion cubic meters of helium. However, Congress began phasing out the reserve in 1996, as the reserve was in debt. The resulting "Helium Privatization Act of 1996" ordered the reserve to sell its helium in 2005. For comparison, the US (the world's largest helium producer) totaled 73 million cubic meters in 2014, around the 30% of world production, but still a fraction of what was in reserve before.

Amarillo was chosen because it has the proper geology and proper logistics, especially due to its proximity to helium-rich fields. Even in the US, there are only a few known natural gas fields that are rich in helium.

However, the Helium Privatization Law was only the first step. By 2007, it was reported that the federal government was auctioning parts of the Amarillo Helium Plant, and it was reported that the National Reserve itself was “being slowly withdrawn and sold to private industry. The facility is due to be fully privatized by September 2021, adding to the uncertainty regarding the current helium crisis.

In Amarillo, the locals don't seem to care much. A recent article by Laura Garcia on Express News quotes Operations Manager Barry Stoll as saying:

“Sometimes people are surprised to learn that we are still operating,” said Samuel Burton, field manager for the Amarillo office. "They thought we closed in 96" when Congress first tried to close the helium stock. "

So is there a shortage of helium?

The short answer is yes.

In 2017, filling a dozen helium balloons would have cost you about $ 12. Today, that costs almost double. Not only have helium prices risen in recent years, but supply is also problematic at some points.

Besides the political and business aspect, there are very good physical reasons why there is a shortage of helium. Helium may be abundant in the universe, but here on Earth it just floats away. The granite-type rocks that produce it aren't that abundant in the first place, especially under impermeable rocks that can trap it in place. Therefore, the supply side is slim to begin with, requiring unusual geological conditions.

There is another problem: around the world, the number of natural gas fields that are also rich in helium is decreasing; we are not finding new large fields and ideally natural gas consumption would also phase out over the next few decades. Then, as mentioned, there is the storage problem and the uncertainty regarding the Amarillo reserve, by far the largest reserve in the world, not that there are that many global helium reserves to begin with.

So in the grand scheme of things for natural gas, helium is little more than an afterthought. About 97% of all collected helium is produced as a "waste product", during the purification of natural gas.

Reserves are also running low, while consumption remains constant or even increases. It's no wonder then that pricing and availability become problematic.

Helium demand is outpacing supply, by as much as 15% according to some estimates. Many fear that the privatization of the US helium reserve will create more uncertainty and cause even more chaos in an already uncertain market.

We're not running out of helium today or tomorrow, but all signs point to a period of helium shortage. But how big is that problem?

What is helium used for?

If it were just party balloons and funny voices, there wouldn't be much of a problem to start with. But things are not so simple with helium.

Because helium's liquid state is the coldest of all elements, it is used in superconducting magnets, such as those in MRI scanners. In fact, MRI scanners cannot function without helium, although this is an active area of ​​research. The average MRI machine uses about 1,700 liters of helium.

It's not just about MRIs, either. Crucial pieces of chemistry lab equipment won't work unless cooled with liquid helium. Among other things, helium is used to cool and clean rocket engines, in physics and chemistry research (including the Large Hadron Collider), deep-sea diving, weather forecasting, cryogenics, rocket engineering, and advanced manufacturing such as chips. of computer and liquids. glass screens. There is no substitute for gas, and a lack of supply can affect researchers on multiple levels, causing the loss of research equipment and materials.

The helium shortage is no joke. In fact, given that around 10% of the current supply is used for balloons, David Cole-Hamilton, emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of St Andrews, says its use for balloons is "absurd" and should be banned.

"If he tells people, he wants a helium balloon or an MRI for his daughter, it's an obvious choice," he told the BBC.

So if we run out of helium, it could spell trouble, especially considering how widespread medical imaging tools have become.

New supplies? Earth and beyond

For many years, the United States has produced more than 90% of the world's commercial helium. A natural gas plant in Arzew, Algeria, began producing massive amounts of helium in the mid-1990s, enough to cover all European demand. In 2004-2006, two more plants were built, one in Qatar and the other also in Algeria, making the country the second largest producer of helium.

The next 5 years are expected to bring a massive increase in helium production. A nearby well from Russia and another from Qatar are expected to alleviate the shortage for most of the next decade, but that only delays the shortage, without the proper storage facilities.

It is noteworthy that several countries (notably China) are also considering mining helium on the moon, but that is not 'normal' helium, it is an isotope called Helium-3 that could create nuclear fusion plants that are not radioactive.

What happens to helium once we (hopefully) make the transition to renewable energy? For now, there is not much plan for that situation, and the helium shortage is being addressed step by step.


Source: ZME Science

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