Sunday, 23 September 2012

Helium, a brief history and the future shortage panic

Helium is a chemical element with symbol He and atomic number 2. It is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic, inert, monatomic gas that heads the noble gas group in the periodic table. Its boiling and melting points are the lowest among the elements and it exists only as a gas except in extreme conditions. Helium is used in cryogenics (its largest single use, absorbing about a quarter of production), particularly in the cooling of superconducting magnets, with the main commercial application being in MRI scanners.
Helium's other industrial uses—as a pressurizing and purge gas, as a protective atmosphere for arc welding and in processes such as growing crystals to make silicon wafers—account for half of the gas produced. A well-known but minor use is as a lifting gas in balloons and airships. As with any gas with differing density from air, inhaling a small volume of helium temporarily changes the timbre and quality of the human voice. In scientific research, the behavior of the two fluid phases of helium-4 (helium I and helium II), is important to researchers studying quantum mechanics (in particular the property of superfluidity) and to those looking at the phenomena, such as superconductivity, that temperatures 4 degrees near absolute zero produce in matter. It was important in the development in the atomic bomb and the space race to the moon.

Although helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, most of it in the Earth’s atmosphere bleeds off into space. Helium used for industrial purposes is a byproduct of natural gas production, and the Texas Panhandle is the United States’ helium capital. In the natural gas fields near Amarillo, the U.S. government maintains the country’s largest helium storehouse.
The government put it there back in 1925 because natural gas produced at the gas fields between Amarillo and Hugoton, Kan., has a very high helium concentration—up to 1.9 percent. Although other countries produce helium, the natural gas fields elsewhere around the globe are much less helium-rich than those near Amarillo. Because helium was critical to military reconnaissance and space exploration in the mid-20th Century, Congress mandated that the government encourage private helium producers nationwide to sell their helium to the government and store it near Amarillo as part of the Federal Helium Program.
The Federal Helium Program has undergone many changes since its inception in 1925. Its original purpose was to ensure supplies of helium to the Federal Government for defense, research, and medical purposes. Over time, the program evolved into a conservation program with a primary goal of supplying the Federal Government with high-grade helium for high-tech research and aerospace purposes. The United States government became interested in helium during World War I. The Army valued it as a safe, noncombustible alternative to hydrogen for use in buoyant aircraft. In 1925 Congress created a Federal Helium Program to ensure that helium would be available to the government for defense needs. The Bureau of Mines constructed and operated a large helium extraction and purification plant just north of Amarillo, Texas, that went into operation in 1929. From 1929 to 1960 the federal government was the only domestic producer of helium.
During and after World War II the demand for helium increased. In response, Congress passed amendments to the Helium Act in 1960. The amendments provided incentives for private natural gas producers to strip helium from natural gas and sell it to the government. The Secretary of the Interior was given authority to borrow money from the U.S. Treasury to buy helium. Some of this helium was used for research, NASA’s space program, and other applications, but most was injected into a storage facility known as the Federal Helium Reserve. The 1960 amendments required the Bureau of Mines to set prices on the helium it sold that would cover all of the helium program’s costs and repay its debts
Federal demand for helium did not live up to post-war expectations, and by the 1990s private demand for helium far exceeded federal demand. The 1996 Helium Privatization Act redefined the government’s role in helium production.
According to helium conservationists like Robert Coleman Richardson, the free market price of helium has contributed to "wasteful" usage (e.g. for helium balloons). Prices in the 2000s have been lowered by U.S. Congress' decision to sell off the country's large helium stockpile by 2015. According to Richardson, the current price needs to be multiplied by 20 to eliminate the excessive wasting of helium. In their book, the Future of helium as a natural resource (Routledge, 2012), Nuttall, Clarke & Glowacki (2012) also proposed to create an International Helium Agency (IHA) to build a sustainable market for this precious commodity.
In Amarillo's storage facility which is basically placing into the ground (into porous rock), has one third of the worlds supply and holds about ten years worth of gas. Expensively extracting the rest from natural gas and oil supplies will be the last few remanent supplies on earth, of which currently 16% of the gas is lost in the atmosphere through airships and party balloons. If not carefully recycled, the supply of helium will eventually run out and could spell the end of cold temperature research, wielding, transportation and production of flat screen TVs.

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