Peak Helium

Preface. Turns out helium is needed for a lot more than party balloons, and like all resources, it is in decline. I learned that Stuff Runs Out early in life when we visited dozens of abandoned gold and silver mining towns on family vacations to the Southwest.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity, XX2 report

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Scientists are worried. Helium is the workhorse of chemistry, and shortages are forcing some experiments to shut down.  There is no substitute, or way to synthesize it, though some can be extracted as a byproduct of natural gas.

At the rate we’re consuming helium, it will be gone in less than 200 years, or even sooner since the current administration plans to privatize the federal helium supply, hastening its depletion. We’re undoing the planets billions of years of helium production in just a few decades.

How the universes second most common element could have a shortage is bewildering, but that’s because when an underground field is discovered, it’s hard to trap and store, usually escaping.  It’s hard to stockpile helium because of its inevitable escape from most containers.  The best way to keep that from happening is to store it in a layer of dolomite over 3,000 feet below ground, where there’s a thick layer of salt keeping it in place.

There are very few locations it’s likely to be found, mainly the U.S. Qatar, and Algeria. 

It takes hundreds of millions of years to produce any substantial quantities of helium underground. They build up where veins of these elements have been deposited, and lead to enormous underground reservoirs of helium. Once it’s extracted, we’d have to wait hundreds of millions of years again for these stores to replenish themselves.

Helium uses:

  • MRIs
  • Nuclear magnetic resonance
  • Deep sea diving
  • Airbags
  • cryogenics
  • Semiconductor industry
  • Fiber optics
  • Super-conducting magnets
  • Development of pharmaceutical drugs
  • NASA to separate fuels in rockets
  • Radiation-detecting sensors
  • Particle accelerators
  • Coldest substance in the world: minus 450 F, useful for cooling applications

References

Baig, E., et al. 2019. Not just balloons: helium shortage may deflat MRIs, airbags, and research

Murphy, H. 2019. The global helium shortage is real, but don’t blame party balloons. New York Times

Pflum, M. 2019. Not just party city: why helium shortages worry scientists and researchers. CBS News.

Siegel, E., et al. 2019. Humanity is thoughtlessly wasting an essential, non-renewable resource: Helium. Forbes.

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4 Responses to Peak Helium

  1. Xabier says:

    Well, that’s industrial civilization: running short of the very resources which sustain it in only a few centuries -and unable, for economic reasons, to conserve them (in so many cases, only maximum exploitation and consumption is at all viable).

    It has no future at all, clearly.

    As for the fantasists who think that economies can ‘de-couple’ from resource exploitation. Oh my……

  2. Robert S cook says:

    Since industrial civilization has less than 100 years left before we return to agricultural civilization (equivalent to, say, 1870, perhaps minus coal), this isn’t going to be a problem.

  3. Martin Kasik says:

    I do not have a time to go back to my archive but I think situation is worse. The only source of helium are a few natural gas locations, where helium content is high enough (a few percent) to extract it.
    Helium is a product of radioactive decay of potassium 40 in an Earth core. Helium slowly diffuse to the surface and then escapes into atmosphere and then to the space (Earth gravity is not able to hold hydrogen neither helium).
    Only under a few dense salt domes it can be trapped in its way up (along with natural gas).
    Yes there is a strategic storage in US and I believe it was already privatized.
    It will be gone sooner then 200 years.

  4. Marty Sereno says:

    I have been working with MRI for almost three decades. At the rate at which we are consuming helium, it will be scarce in less than a decade. There are already shortages today as the US stops selling off the almost-empty strategic helium reserve (below cost). The last time they threatened to do this (2014), there was a severe helium shortage that shut down many MEG machines (I was in London at the time).

    The problem has been known for a long time. Here is a post I wrote on helium and other things for The Oil Drum, back in the day (2005):

    http://theoildrum.com/story/2005/11/30/233433/82