Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Helium: Heavy Demand, Light Supply

From NPR News this morning, an intriguing news tidbit regarding the ongoing helium shortage:
"There's a global shortage of refined helium, and it could get worse if the [U.S.] government doesn't stay in the business of selling helium. To understand how we got here, we need to go back to nearly a century ago to World War I. Germany started building huge inflatable aircraft, and to keep up, the U.S. started stockpiling helium. That federal helium reserve is located outside Amarillo, Texas. [snip]
Hope you can hold off on that overnight 13C
Source: Bruker
. . .there are now 10 billion cubic feet of the gas stored in this federal reservoir — enough to fill about 50,000 Goodyear blimps. And it's all kept under a wide-open prairie dotted with coyotes and jack rabbits."
Hang on, let me catch up here. Federal Helium Program? Strategic reserve? I mean, I've heard about the shortage (SciAm, Science, Marketplace), but I didn't realize the situation had grown so dire. (On a micro-econ level, I had noticed that the Airgas truck doesn't stop by to refill the NMRs quite so often, and hourly billing rates are climbing...)

Most of the articles indicate private refineries and exploration firms will bear the supply brunt if Congress doesn't act. 

Perhaps #chemjobs' future isn't in fracking after all - ever thought about 'helium hunting?' Failing that, maybe you could "catch a falling star" and then list it on eBay.


  1. Dude! Fracking is one of the few ways that we can get He, which are trapped underground in the same spots as CH4. Fracking FTW!!

  2. Huh. Thanks for the note, guess I didn't realize that (but should have!)

    Could we still use "Helium Hunters?" (TM)

  3. Another comment ... The federal helium program was started out of a perceived national security need. And, like many federal programs, it never went away when that security need vanished. So we've maintained it all those years but haven't managed it properly. This whole hullabaloo with the fed program is really about getting it managed properly (I think).

    As per He-Hunters, the CH4 is more lucrative than the He. One of the things that has bothered me with fracking from the start is the inefficiency of the process. Lots of gas escape (lost revenue). Lots of used water during periods of drought (causing undue cost on citizens). Seems like there are technical/engineering solutions to the lot of this that could include better trapping and separation of He in the process.

  4. There are a couple of issues here, both of which get conflated in the media into OMG! Helium!

    1) Because of past US gov't action and more recent Congressional action, the US government is in the helium business and it doesn't want to be. How it can get out of it, or whether it should still be, etc., etc. up for discussion and state of play is best summarized in this article:

    2) There was for a moment (to an extent, still is) a real crimp in the helium supply. The US gov't's fire sale of helium had a role to play in the mess, but industry is responding to the relatively high prices/demand with more supply. The most relevant article and statements on it are here, by C&EN's Marc Reisch:

    "To the north, ExxonMobil’s helium plant in La Barge, Wyo., which accounts for about 20% of global helium supply, is undergoing maintenance from June through August. ExxonMobil says it will “meet its contractual supply obligation.” But industrial gas suppliers say the Wyoming facility won’t run at full capacity during the maintenance period, putting pressure on supply.

    Two helium plants in Algeria run by the national oil firm Sonatrach have recently been operating at about half of their normal capacity because of low natural gas demand, says Air Products’ Van Sloun. When demand for gas from helium-containing wells goes down, or wells deplete, less helium is available. Production shortfalls from small plants in Russia, Poland, and Australia have also limited global helium supply, Van Sloun points out.

    Some relief will come starting later this year when nearly 2 billion cu ft of capacity fires up. A 200 million-cu-ft-per-year plant in Big Piney, Wyo., originally planned to open in 2011, should begin operating by the end of 2012. Owned by Air Products and Matheson Tri-Gas, the plant sits idle while the project’s crude helium supplier, Cimarex Energy, completes work on its own facility.

    Sometime next year, an expansion in Algeria will add 350 million cu ft of capacity, industrial gas suppliers say. But the biggest addition of them all is the 1.3 billion-cu-ft Qatar Helium 2 project, scheduled to open in early 2013 by the Qatari firm RasGas. Together with the 660 million-cu-ft Qatar Helium 1 plant already in operation, RasGas says, the new capacity will make the country the world’s second-largest helium producer.

    And Russia could also enter the major leagues of producers. In 2014 or sometime thereafter, large new helium reserves are likely to be tapped in Siberia, says Peter J. Madrid, a helium analyst with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages the government’s pipeline."

    It's my opinion that C&EN's paywall has been blocking those tidbits from getting out into the media. But also, I feel, that looking into the private workings of the helium industry is both boring and deflating of the OMG! Helium SHORTAAAAGGGE! story.

    Just my opinion, though. I could be wrong.

  5. Interesting discussion and thanks, Chemjobber, for some sober perspective. As I understand it, our helium is a product of nuclear reactions deep below the Earth's surface that get trapped in those same rock pockets that contain natural gas. Since the nuclear reactions in the core and mantle continue, the helium should replenish, but at a slower rate than that at which we use it. Does anyone know what rate this is?
    Also, helium is a byproduct of fission reactors. Is nuclear power generation a feasible future source of helium or do we have to wait until cold fusion becomes a viable option?
    Finally, where are we (collectively as chemists) in the development of high temperature (liquid nitrogen temperature) superconductors, which would negate much of the demand for helium?