Helium: An Irreplaceable Resource and Why We Must Conserve It

Youtube ID: JH8s2vUeZ1Y

Download Slides Report Problem April 11, 2019
* If you are having technical difficulties viewing the video please try different internet browsers like Chrome, Firefox, and Explorer. If you still cannot access the video please review the following computer prerequisites from our video hosting platform.

Sophia Hayes
Washington University

William Halperin
Northwestern University

Will Hartwig 
American Chemical Society 

Additional Answers To Your Helium Questions

Are there any envisioned practical ways to secure Helium from the atmosphere if/when other means are exhausted? 

None that we are aware of.  The concentration is simply so low, plus helium is less dense than air, meaning it would escape prior to capture.  It’s good to think “out of the box” about solutions, this may be impractical.

Why is helium used in NMR machines and are there any alternative gases that could potentially replace helium for NMR machines? 

Helium is used as a coolant for the coils in the NMR to achieve the superconducting state (to generate high magnetic fields).  There are proposals for other gases (H2 is one proposal) and alternate technologies, but they are not currently feasible for widespread use.

How does helium used in the medical field? 

Helium is used as a coolant in MRI machines and other imaging devices where cooling of the instrument can enhance detection.

In the US, what sector uses the most helium, and is this usage the same in other countries?

In the U.S., based on the data shown in the presentation, large sectors are the use of helium in rocket engines and “lifting” applications, MRI instruments, and the semiconductor industry.

I've read some articles from 2016/2017 articles that say the claim that there is a helium shortage is, lack for a better work, inflated, espeically since abundant helium was found in Tanzania. 

You are getting at two issues here: 1) it is inarguable that helium shortages are being experienced by people—especially researchers—who have deliveries delayed, curtailed or canceled.  2) helium was found in Tanzania, but it is in a geologic formation that is atypical, meaning it cannot be separated—to the best of our knowledge—using the current separation schemes (of helium from natural gas.)  Nevertheless, the finding of helium in Tanzania is certainly an encouraging development for all of us.

If there is a shortage, is there an estimate for when it will run out?

Various sources have estimated that to be about 200 years, but that’s a very rough estimate based on many assumptions about rates of production and consumption.

Can someone comment on use of liquid helium in supercomputing? 

I have no knowledge of this and suspect while there may be prototypes out there, this is not a major area of consumption.

What resources exist to purchase my recycled helium?

I would reach out to specialty gas suppliers in your area.  Some vendors are willing to pick up helium that has been recompressed to fill gas cylinders.

When or how much liquid helium do I have to use to make reclamation viable economically?

This is a question without an easy answer.  Small-scale reclamation systems cost approximately $150k - $200k, (and may require additional renovations for installation.)  If you imagined a 10-year payback time, the question you have to answer is if you’re currently paying more than $15k - $20k/year for helium.  

Shouldn't the government be building a new reserve of helium, rather than selling it off? Isn't this what the APS has been recommending for decades? 

This is a policy question, and the U.S. government in the 1990’s decided it should not have a hand in the helium reserve.  Yes, APS has been recommending ways to protect helium for science and technological uses.  We hope that others will raise their concerns with Members of Congress to decide on a future course of action.

Russia has huge natural gas reserves. Do they not produce He?

Those resources are being developed and are expected to come into the marketplace after 2021.

How much of current use can be replaced with Nitrogen? 

None of the low-temperature applications can be replaced with nitrogen.  A few of the inert gas applications can – in principle – be replace with nitrogen, but they are a minority of applications.

Currently what concentrations/reservoirs are considered viable for extraction? I know some Precambrian shield systems, such as those here in Canada, have accumulated helium in high concentrations (up to 30 % by vol), but at what point would it be considered an economic resource? 

Concentrations of just a couple of percent (2%) are considered viable.  So 30% would be an extraordinary source.  Even “high concentration” sources are 5-6% (in natural gas).

Does it matter if we use He-3 or He-4? He-4 is the more common isotope. He-3 is 1.38x10-4% in abundance but both are stable.

We are speaking about He-4, but He-3 also has specialized uses and is a precious resource.

These examples don't explain to the casual listener why Helium is necessary for these instruments or what kind of real-value research the end users might see. 

Helium is necessary to achieve the low temperatures (~4K) that allow for special properties of materials (i.e., superconductivity) to be achieved.  The real value of research that end-users see is the ability to characterize the structure of drugs and chemicals, to quantify the composition of mixtures, to image the tissues in humans … there are numerous examples.

Also what about mining in space? Such as from lunar soil or Jupiter or other gas giants.

The difficulty to transport the helium back from space would be prohibitive.  

What's the annual consumption of party balloons? Eliminate He in party balloons - how much would that help? 

The annual consumption for balloons is very small.  (under 6% annually by some estimates).  While it would help, our focus is on other recycling strategies, which will have a much larger effect.

What about substitution with Argon? 

Argon could be a substitute for some inert gas applications, but not for lifting and cooling applications.

What is the status of new superconducting magnet technology? This could eliminate LHe need in favor of other cryogens. 

There is high-temperature superconductor (HTS) magnet technology, but current designs still require liquid helium for the aims of the HTS magnet programs.  It would be good to encourage future federal funding to potentially develop these helium-free magnets.

If I want to reclaim helium but only need high-pressure gas do I still need to liquefy to reclaim? 

No, you don’t need to liquefy to reclaim the helium.  One concern might be that the helium can become slightly contaminated during recycling and may need to be re-purified.

Considering that the major scientific users must have been aware that Helium was a dwindling resource, why has the current shortage come as a shock? In addition, why haven't those users (and the equipment manufacturers) already implemented strategies to capture and preserve Helium?

There have been multiple supply shocks.  We are simply highlighting the most recent one.  High capital equipment costs to capture helium prevents researchers from doing this—given fixed federal research budgets.

As consequence of his introduction: Can He be made from Uranium decay on a usable scale?

it can’t be made quickly enough.  We are benefitting from millennia of such uranium decay underground.  The rate of uranium decay – and the amounts of uranium needed—would be prohibitive to make the quantities we are talking about.  Just to give order of magnitude numbers:  1 mole of uranium produces about 10^14 atoms of helium per year.  If we consider a balloon at STP, filled to about 10^23 atoms of helium – it would take 10^9 years to fill that one balloon.

The large hadron collider uses 120 tons of liquid helium, or 960,000 liters of liquid He. Is this causing the shortage? 

This is not a cause of the shortage.  The shortage is caused by supply shortfalls and interruptions in shipping or distribution of helium.