Apr 292012

Helium prices ballooning

Short form: people are finally starting to figure out that we’re running out of helium. While that would be an irritant for the “party balloon” aficionados, people who like things that are welded together might be in for a bit of a shock. Blimps can replace their helium with hydrogen, but that would be an unwise choice for welders. Helium is also handy for pressurization systems, such as pressure-fed rockets; it’s light, chemically neutral and doesn’t go into solution in some propellants the way others can (having had entertaining times trying to pressurize nitrous oxide with nitrogen and had it turn into seltzer water…). Additionally: helium is useful as an “ullage medium” in rocketry… when the propellant is expelled from the tank, such as by being drawn out through a turbopump, injecting helium into the tank replaces the propellant and keeps the tank properly pressurized.

Also: helium is great as a coolant for superconducting applications. Without helium, kiss MRI’s goodbye.

 Posted by at 5:44 pm
  • Bruce

    Found that out recently when trying to get Helium at a card and party store for a friend’s
    kids birthday party and found that the store had none and said because there was a shortage.

    • Anonymous

      Use hydrogen. Not only do you get increased lift, you can also end the birthday party the way children *really* like: release the balloon and let it fly away… but make sure to set the string on fire first.

  • Y’know, once you get past the asteroid belt, there are four planets with a whole awful lot of helium, just floating around with nobody’s brand on it. Just sayin’.

    Hydrogen party balloons: I have seen the trick done with big soap bubbles and a candle on a long handle to chase them with. Pow!

  • Jordan

    Now someone needs to figure a way out how to recycle the Helium we use and capture it out of the upper atmosphere. Of course, someone is bound to discover a major source of Helium — just like oil, we seem to be always running out of it.

    • Anonymous

      Unlike oil, there’s only one real industrial-quantity source of helium on Earth (gas fields of Texas). Unlike oil, helium cannot be manufactured from readily available cheap chemicals, barring hydrogen fusion.

      • Nick P.


        There’s a trace amount of helium in the atmosphere that’s replenished by radioactive decay and this can be extracted from the air, usually as a byproduct of other air liquefaction activities such as nitrogen and argon production.

        The implication is that while helium may become very *expensive* as compared to now, there will always be a supply available for critical applications or where it’s cost is a relatively minor component.

        Examples: Cooling for superconducting magnets in MRI machines-n-such, and working fluid in brayton cycle turbines.

        In the first example you’re not using enough of the stuff for it to get ‘full-retard’ expensive anyway but it is still there for such a critical application and in the second example if you’re building the turbines for a 1.5 jiggawatt power plant then as compared to the couple of $billion$ you’re spending on that setup 150 million spent on the helium just becomes another cost line item.

        • Anonymous

          > There’s a trace amount of helium in the atmosphere that’s replenished by radioactive decay and this can be extracted from the air

          According to Wiki: “Helium must be extracted from natural gas because it is present in air at only a fraction of that of neon, yet the demand for it is far higher. It is estimated that if all neon production were retooled to save helium, that 0.1% of the world’s helium demands would be satisfied. Similarly, only 1% of the world’s helium demands could be satisfied by re-tooling all air distillation plants.”

          A possible bright spot: “It is estimated that the resource base for yet-unproven helium in natural gas in the U.S. is 31–53 trillion SCM, about 1000 times the proven reserves.”

      • Anonymous

        Nope. It’s just that in other places like Russia or whatever they usually don’t bother to get the helium out.

        • Anonymous

          We cannot allow a helium gap!

  • M Garrett

    Correct me on this, doesn’t the U.S. Government still maintain a strategic reserve of helium ?

    • allen

      I believe that was auctioned off in 2007 and is now in private hands. more than likely it was not continued as a reserve but just sold off and not replaced.

  • Peter Hanely

    In welding argon is commonly used as a shielding gas in minor variations of processes that were pioneered with helium. At ~1% of the atmosphere, argon is comparatively cheap as a byproduct of LOX and LN2 production. And it’s a first class shielding gas for welding.

  • Arlukiii

    The lovely 1 – 2 punch of republican congress followed by 8 years of Bush saw the national helium reserve shut down and then slowly sold off to industry.

    • Anonymous

      Yeah, because somehow President *Clinton* signing off of selling the NHR back in ’96 is the fault of Republicans. And the fact that helium production itself is declining? Clearly that’s Bush’s fault too.

      • Arlukiii

        Clinton didn’t author the law.

        • Arlukiii

          Do you not remember what kinds of people were in congress in 1995 and 96? First republican majority across the board since the 1950s. Sadly, this was the least of the damage they caused back then. Remember when the government was shut down?

          • Anonymous

            > this was the least of the damage they caused back then. Remember when the government was shut down?

            “damage” and “shut down the government” are two different and almost mutually exclusive concepts. The more it shuts down, the less it spends, the better.

          • Arlukiii

            If you live in a shack in the woods, a lack of government is fine for a while. (That is to say, until the power goes out and the roads start to crumble, and if you have a fire or need to call 911.) But for most Americans, the government is useful. Shutting down the government does not mean it stops costing money… it just means the government costs money but gets no work done. So yeah, damage.

          • Anonymous

            And what damage was done by shutting a small fraction of the government down for a few days (I don’t recall the cops, firefighters or military being sent home)?

          • Arlukiii

            Nothing gets done, yet the money is spent. Wasted time = wasted money. And when it is a government, the money wasted amounts of billions per day. If the government could get everything done in a month and then shut down, spending nothing, I would be happy. Instead, it just kicks the can down the road so that republicans can win a political game.


          • Anonymous

            > Nothing gets done, yet the money is spent.

            OK. Work through the logic on that. If during a government shutdown the money is still spent but nothing gets done, that points out quite clearly that when the government is running and things *do* get done, the money required to actually accomplishing things is therefore a miniscule percentage of the money actually spent.

            Thus: you could cut government spending by perhaps 90% and still accomplish the things you actually need to accomplish. You’d just have to stop paying a whole lot of wholly ineffective people (i.e. the bureaucrats and vast majority of government employees).

        • Brianna

          If he signed it, it’s still his problem. Now if he vetoed it, and the Houses passed it without his signature, then you may complain about evil republicans. Maybe.