Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Current lab work: Helium shortage

Did you know: there is a national helium shortage?

Little kids are gonna grow up without helium balloons in their childhood!  Football games will have to discontinue their ancient traditions of releasing thousands of helium balloons into the air at half time!  Perhaps more importantly, doctors will be unable to maintain the magnets of their MRI machines.  And most importantly for me, it will impact my research.

One of the things I do in my lab is cool superconducting samples with liquid helium.  A company delivers our helium in 100 liter dewars.  I roll this dewar to the elevator, press an elevator button, then run down the stairs to catch up with it.  This is a safety precaution, so that if there is a leak, it doesn't displace all the oxygen in the elevator and suffocate me.

Earlier, I had gone for a month and a half without helium.  During the time I meant to be experimenting, I read about the national helium shortage instead.

Helium is not a renewable resource.  Because helium is a very light molecule, at thermal equilibrium it moves faster than other air molecules.  Helium doesn't stay in the atmosphere very long because eventually the molecules go fast enough to simply escape the earth.  Instead we get our helium from natural gas deposits.

Back in 1960, the US government thought helium would be useful for military dirigibles or the space race or something, and they put lots of helium underground in the National Helium Reserve (NHR).  Later, the NHR would accumulate debt.  In response to the debt, congress passed the Helium Privatization Act in 1996.

So the government wanted to privatize helium, and to encourage this, they're selling off all the helium in the NHR.  At really low prices (enough to pay off the debt).  At a slow, fixed rate (I think this is a physical limitation of the extraction process?).  For an extended period of time (until 2018-2020).  Private helium companies can't compete with this, because they have to build all the infrastructure from scratch, while the NHR already has it.  And because helium is so cheap, a lot of users don't bother recycling it.

Something about this just seems dumb on Congress' part.  If they had kept helium nationalized and sold it at reasonable prices, I'm sure the debt would have been paid off by now.  If they wanted to encourage private helium companies, they shouldn't have mandated the fire sale.  They should have sold off ownership of the reserve like a publicly traded company or something like that.


Arjen Dijksman said...

Low-temperature experimental work is indeed in trouble these days with this helium shortage. The solution will be to recycle it. Maybe at CERN and other mega-users of superconducting devices, they have the know how to commercialize cheap recycling devices?

miller said...

We actually have a synchrotron light source here, and they don't recycle their helium. It's terrible!

miller said...

Note that I'm probably not giving a complete picture here. I think there's also an issue with natural gas. Because natural gas is so cheap, they don't want to produce more, which leads to less helium.

kaworuweb said...

I also do low-T physics experiment with superconductor, and the He(l) price has increased ~40% within several years!