Jun 282016

Huge helium discovery ‘a life-saving find’

In recent years a lot of people who care about such things have been quietly freaking out about the forthcoming helium shortage. Never mind party balloons… a lack of helium would be a *real* problem for anyone who needs superconductors… such as people who rely on MRIs and particle accelerators and the like, cooled by liquid helium. It seems, though, that new large underground reservoirs of helium may have been located, and may be economically tappable.

Sid note: from time to time I’ve seen it suggested in science fiction that all the helium we need could be produced through nuclear fusion of hydrogen in commercial fusion powerplants. A nice idea, but the problem if that very, very little helium would be produced. For example:

The energy liberated by the fusion of 1 Kg of Deuterium with 1.5 Kg of Tritium is therefore 2.82 X 10-12 X 2.99 X 1026 = 8.43 X 1014 Joules = (8.43 X 1014) / (3.6 X 1012) GWHours = 234 GWHours.

This energy appears in the form of heat. If it was used to generate electricity in a conventional steam turbine power plant with an efficiency of 38%, it would provide 88,900 MWH of electricity which is near enough equivalent to one year’s operation with a constant output power of 10 MWatts.

So a ten megawatt fusion generating plant would crank out about 2.5 kilos of helium per year. Yeah, not really floating the Goodyear blimp on *that.*

 Posted by at 12:30 pm
  • Mr Macguffin

    Would lack of helium be enough of an incentive to go get it off world from places like Saturn or Titan?

    • Scottlowther

      Nope. UNless someone comes up with a cheap wormhole system, there’s no such thing as a cost-effective off-world source of helium. Since it does not chemically bind with anything under real-world conditions, and it has such an astonishingly low boiling point, the only helium we’re going to find is in gaseous form… no chunks of helium ice floating around out there that can be nudged in-system.

      If someone *does* come up with a cheap wormhole system, there will be greater needs for it than helium, too. Stick one end under the Europan ice, the other in Valles Marinaris. Stick one end under the clouds of Venus, the other end… well, hell, Valles Marinaris again.

      • TheRequimen

        Can we stick one on the surface of Venus, and the other end at congress for a few minutes?

        • Christopher James Huff

          Venus has plenty of hot air, it doesn’t need any more.

          • Doug Pirahna

            Venus also has a crushing, poisonous atmosphere, just like the men’s room at work

  • gormanao gormanao

    Good news! For years I went into a slow burn when I saw helium being wasted thanks to the “Helium Privatization Act of 1996”, where the whole national reserve was to be blown out by 2015. Congresscritters were finally convinced that helium was not just a joke for filling zeppelins and modified the law into the more appropriately names “Helium Stewardship Act of 2013”. All we have is what’s in the ground, for now.

    • mzungu

      Price is just too cheap now for a recycling to kick in yet, I guess. I am wondering how $$ it need to get to set up some type of recovery system?? 😛

  • mzungu

    Reading the title, for a second there I thought you were jumping on that He3 fusion wagon/myth… 😀

    Realistically, What’s like your estimate on how many decades are we from like any sort or form of fusion power?

    • Scottlowther

      We’re a decade away. And have been for half a century.

      • mzungu

        Hahaha … At this point, I guess I should pin my hope on that flying car instead. 😛

        • sferrin

          That, along with hypersonic flight is also “a decade away and has been for half a century”.

          • Scottlowther

            Sadly, both fusion power and hypersonics have been *available* from a purely practical engineering standpoint for pretty much all of that half century. Want to extract electricity from hydrogen fusion? Easy. Pop off an H-bomb in a bottle. Vaporize a thousand tons of water, feed through a turbine, cool and recycle. Extract entertaining heavy elements and reprocess into more bombs.

            Want hypersonic transport? It’s called “rocketry.” Works pretty good.

    • se jones

      It’s instructive to take a look at the the updated ITER site and check out the latest construction pics.
      Each one of the enormous 45’x30’x3′ superconducting magnets in ITER weigh as much as a 747, so those babies with take a lot of liquid He.

      Naturally, like you’d expect for a big international government program, ITER is many years behind schedule and *ludicrously* over budget. The EU’s problems aren’t helping either. Still…one impressive machine.


  • Christopher James Huff

    We currently consume about 13 thousand times as much helium as we’d produce as fusion ash if all our energy was produced from fusion. But…fusion energy conversion is not going to be 100% efficient, if we need helium badly enough we can find uses for the extra energy released in its production, and we can produce additional helium using the neutrons produced by D-T fusion…just keeping stockpiles of tritium around will produce a steady supply of He-3 (which makes the idea of mining lunar regolith for He-3 fusion fuel particularly silly). We already produce some He-3 using fission reactors as a neutron source. Combined with collection and recycling, it’s not that absurd an idea.

  • se jones

    We in the weather business are relieved to see this news, a couple of thousand weather balloons are launched around the world each day. When the price of He goes up it really hurts the Met agencies around the world. (and no, satellites are no substitute for in situ measurements, not in theory or in practice).

    Helium – I like to think of it as radioactivity in a bottle, Alpha particles slowed waaay down.

    Look, unless someone actually delivers on “high temperature superconductor wire” (liquid hydrogen temps) the world’s going to need a s*^t load more He.
    Example: for wind energy to not be a massively $ subsidized ecofreak joke, wind turbines will need superconducting generators asap. The average land based wind turbine is held up by ~a thousand tons of concrete & rebar (extremely energy intensive to make mostly using cheap Chinese & Mexican coal) with the turbine power head made of ~200 tons of steel, copper and composites – all very energy intensive to manufacture, transport & maintain. But I digress.

    And to think – when I moved here to Northern Colorado, there was actually a commercial 330MWe 40% thermally efficient (that’s excellent) fast neutron, high temperature helium cooled breeder reactor in nearby Platteville.
    Oh hell, I musta been dreamin.

    • Veronica Smith


    • Scottlowther

      > a couple of thousand weather balloons are launched around the world each day.

      Got a *good* explanation why weather balloons can’t use hydrogen? A modicum of caution must be taken at launch, but once it’s up and going the risk is over.

      • TheRequimen

        Regulations perhaps?

      • se jones

        No engineering reason at all why they can’t use hydrogen. The overwhelming majority of civil and military users stick with He because of safety rules and regulations, that’s all. Once in flight who cares, but storing bottles of hydrogen around the forecasting office makes the safety commissars crabby.

        I’m virtually certain there are cash-strapped Met agencies, science institutions or military units who resort to hydrogen because that’s all they can afford. You know – necessity is the mother of invention.

  • Peter Hanely

    Future availability of Helium extracted from natural gas has not been in realistic doubt, it just hasn’t been competitive with the reserves being sold off. The recent discovery of a more concentrated Helium resource promises continued availability at relatively cheep prices.