Solutions to the Helium Shortage?

Discussion in 'Chemistry' started by SolShock, Nov 30, 2010.

  1. SolShock Registered Member

    Hello everyone,
    I recently was assigned an assignment at my university to analyze the impending helium shortage crisis, and how to stave it. I thought I would come here to find an avenue for constructive criticism by a community that is geared perfectly for the sort of feedback I'd love. Below is an excerpt from my written assignment that incorporates my suggestions for staving a helium shortage. The solutions span from more practical and tangible approaches that can be executed today, to more conceptual and futuristic approaches. Any suggestions would be much appreciated. Thanks so much in advance.

    The helium solution will involve a multifacetedapproach that will involve legislative solutions as well as technological andsystemic innovation with concordant sociological shifts to foster conservationand reduction of inefficient consumption. Helium supply is expected to meet demand onlyuntil around 2020.

    Regardingapproaches to solutions that can be adapted now, conservation and heliumrecycling is a couple of measures that can be implemented to maintain currentsupply levels. Due to currentlegislation, helium is being sold to private companies at dirt-cheap levels,offering no sort of incentive to recycle the gas after use. The solution to immediate supply problemstoday can be to both incentivize helium recycling by intervening and upping theprice of helium (or to allow the natural laws of the market to take hold bywatching helium supplies dwindle and have the price of helium naturally climband incentivize recycling.) Industrialmachinery exists that allow for the capturing, refinement, and re-collection ofused helium after it is consumed during leak test applications, which are usedoften in the HVAC industry for example to test gaseous component leakage rates.
    For example, the Vacuum Instrument Corporation (VIC) has created an industrial-grade mechanism that effectivelyreduces helium leakage in industrial leak-test processes, and promises torecycle the gas with up to 98% efficiency. Although the technology itself of course has an initial cost, mostestimates quantify the return on investment period to be around two years toeighteen months. Notable entities suchas NASA currently do not utilize helium recycling technology en masse as aresult of its cheap supply price, but NASA should be serving as a leader inhelium conservation to encourage recycling by other entities, especially sinceit is a major consumer of helium.

    Regardlessof the approach, recycling and conservation needs to be advocated. Although mines and reservoirs can beestablished in other helium containing areas such as Poland, Russia, andAlgeria, a vast majority of helium reserves are in the geographical UnitedStates. It thus falls on the actions ofthe U.S. Government to funnel and control supply to prevent an unexpectedglobal spike in helium price that will undoubtedly jar the industries thatutilize the gas.

    Thereare also solutions which go beyond the conventional solution of heliumrecycling. These solutions utilize more advanced technology, some of which hasyet to be perfected or even widely implemented. Two such solutions include helium mining on the moon and other planetsand the synthetic production of helium. These two solutions are consideredlong-term solutions.

    Themoon contains vast amounts of helium-3, the most usable isotope of helium.Helium-3 is a very important part of many processes such as nuclear fusion,medical lung imaging, and cryogenics. While the earth only contains limitedamounts of He-3, which are quickly diminishing, the moon could sustain oursupply of He-3 for many years. It is estimated that one space flight couldcarry 25 tons of He-3 to earth, which is enough to power the entire U.S. forone year through He-3 nuclear fusion. Also, mining the moon would be a gatewayto other helium enriched planets such as Saturn and Uranus. The problem withthis solution is the cost. It is already incredibly expensive to fly to space,and it is unfathomable how much it would be to set up mines on the moon. Thereare no laws governing space meaning countries would mine with no regard fortheir impact on space and other planets. Though the moon is a good source ofhelium, there may be unforeseen repercussions with tapping into availablehelium gas reserves.

    Anothersolution is the synthetic production of helium in a laboratory. Helium, andmore importantly He-3, can be extracted from tritium decay. Tritium decay isproduced by bombarding the nuclei of lithium, boron, or nitrogen atoms withneutrons to change the atomic makeup of these elements. Currently, He-3 isextracted from tritium decay in unused nuclear weapons. The problems areassociated with this solution are related to availability issues. Lithium,boron, and nitrogen are not in unlimited supply on earth and tritium productionrequires eighteen times the lithium, boron, or nitrogen than He-3 that isproduced. Thus they could only be used to produce a limited amount of He-3.Also the storage of tritium is extremely expensive, costing more than He-3 isworth to produce. Similarly, He-3 iscreated from deuterium-deuterium nuclear fusion, while He-4, the most abundanthelium isotope is created from suggested deuterium-tritium nuclear fusion, anenergy-generating that is suggested to be economically viable within the nextforty years. Should these methodsproliferate, helium would be naturally generated as a result.
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  3. rpenner Fully Wired Staff Member

    Over 4 years, at a cost of $25.4 billion, the US only just barely managed manned 6 trips to the moon, and only managed to bring back 0.382 tons of unprocessed rock, most of which was not helium. So both your assertion that it is possible to bring back 25 tons of anything from the moon, and that helium-3 is abundant on the moon need a basis in non-crackpot sources. Even if helium-3 is temporarily abundant in the surface layers of the moon, you have not indicated that it is a a renewable resource. Your assertion that helium-3 is more important than helium-4 in cryogenics makes no sense, given that helium-4 is the more famous superfluid.

    You also might want to look into the only synthetic element commercially available to consumers: Americium, a tiny speck of which (0.3 µg) is used to drive smoke detectors. The rest are used in nuclear weapon, power and medical facilities.
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  5. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    Hi and welcome to sciforums. You may not like my reply.
    My information is years old, but I suspect it is still true that most He is removed from natural gas wells, but only when the value of the He makes that profitable. When it is not, the He is lost as the gas is burned. Thus, long ago, the government was encouraging the wasteful use of He in children's party balloons, etc. to build up the demand, -raise the price - to make it profitable to separate the He from CH4 gas wells. (The government was adding He to its strategic reserves and that help hold the price up too.)

    While supporters of advanced fusion cycles often state that, it is IMHO clearly false. It is true that the solar wind does contain a small fraction of He3 and that some of that may be embedded in moon's upper layers of dust; however, the moon's surface is exposed to 14x24=336 hours of continuous solar heating (never a shading cloud) and gets quite hot. I.e. almost all of the adsorbed He3 is driven off into space very promptly. He, being a noble gas does not chemical bind to the moon dust and is able to slip thru very tiny spaces – why it is the best vacuum leak detector. None was ever recovered from the seal samples the astronauts returned to Earth. There is very little He3 on earth, so the advocates of fusion cycles (and space exploration)* have invented this fiction.

    *If these advanced fusion cycles could be made to work, then He3 is the ONLY thing it would pay to bring to earth from the moon, not gold, not diamonds, or anything else. - Why space exploration advocates join the advanced fusion supporters to promote the false idea that there is a lot of He3 on the moon.

    Note also that recent advances in “horizontal drilling” and “hydro fracturing” for natural gas in shale deposits have in all likely hood greatly increased the supply of He. The main valid point of your post is that He is too cheap to make it worthwhile to separate it from natural gas. I.e. we need it to be more costly – I.e. it needs to have increased demand and no recycling! Thus, we need to use a lot filling up kid’s birthday balloons etc. or else the He in the CH4 supply will just continue to be lost to space as the CH4 is burned.

    PS - I warned you that you would not like my reply.

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    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 30, 2010
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  7. ScribJellyDonut Registered Senior Member

    I will be brief since I did not read it all, nor do I claim to be an expert on Helium shortages. My criticism will involve a few housekeeping and grammatical things I saw in the first few parts of your paper - rather than the technical aspect.

    I'm sure you may realize that you have missed a lot of space between words. This is something MS Word and similar word processors will catch automatically and correct.

    When quoting the investment period, say from around eighteen months to two years - the smaller value should be first.

    Here is where you may not like what I have to say. In my opinion your introductory paragraph seems to be intentionally inflated with how shall we say... big words. I haven't read but about one third of your paper so whether this is the case or that is your natural writing style I do not know. I can tell you that it will be very easy for someone who reads your paper to tell, and it may have gotten an "impressive vocabulary" comment from a high school teacher, but you're in college - and these things show. Not only that, but when writing an introduction to a paper you generally want to ease the audience in regardless of the technical detail that you may go into later. I think you understand what I'm getting at so I won't explain any further. Take it with a grain of salt. It's just my opinion, but it's your paper.
  8. ElectricFetus Sanity going, going, gone Valued Senior Member

    1. Stop using helium for frivolous things! No more party balloons!
    2. Fusion? well assuming nuclear fusion was to come about even if all of todays energy were to come from fusion it would only supply ~12% of today's helium usage.
    3. Air extraction, Helium can be extracted from air, but only at a very high price. At 0.00052% of the atmosphere helium extracted from air will be very expensive even as a off-shot of air liquefaction.
  9. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    Is what I said I post 3 no longer true?
    I know it seems counter intuitive to say that the best way to save He (from being lost as natural gas is burned) is to waste more of it in birthday balloons etc. but that was the case 20 or so years ago.
  10. kmguru Staff Member

    The Wyoming Helium Plant by Exxon produces 70% of world helium at least when I worked there 15 years ago. Have not heard they are shutting it down!
  11. ElectricFetus Sanity going, going, gone Valued Senior Member

    With today's helium prices you don't need to waste helium on party balloons to raise demand.
  12. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    Do you recall what price of He was needed to recover the cost of separation (from natural gas, I assume)? Or was the government providing a subsidy to avoid loss of He as the CH4 was burned?

    Any one know the market price of He today? Is separation cost subsidized today? If it is, probably still better from the tax payer's POV to use party balloons, etc. to hold market price above separation cost. (Then instead of all tax payers paying to save He, only those using it would. - Sort of like only the users of a toll road should pay for it idea.)
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 3, 2010
  13. ElectricFetus Sanity going, going, gone Valued Senior Member

  14. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    To ElectricFetus: thanks for the two informative links of post 10. I am glad to know we are now in a He era where the government is reselling what it earlier stock pilled and no longer are tax payers paying to save He.

    The market will do a good job, I think, of allocating the available He to the correct / optimial uses. I also expect the US switching to much greater use of CH4 in the energy mix with new horizontal drilling and Hydro-fracturing technology in the vast shale gas fields US has will in a few years stem the current rise of He costs.
  15. kmguru Staff Member

    It was so long ago that I do not remember. But the recovery was unusually high there.

    Helium was recovered in several facilities - Kemmerer, Shute Creek and La Barge facilities. I think

    Shute Creek Facility has inlet gas at 700 MMCFD with

    66% CO2
    21% Methane
    7% Nitrogen
    5% Hydrogen Sulfide
    0.6% Helium (4 MMCFD)

    Cimarex is building a $350 Million Helium recovery plant at Riley Ridge facility that will produce as much as 400 million cubic feet of helium per year (New)

    Helium production in the US

    Exxon La Barge Facility 1.7% Helium
    Mesa Kansas facility 0.4% Helium
    Wlliams (Bakers) Oklahoma 0.38% Helium

    See more on Helium resources:
  16. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    To Kmguru: Thanks for post 12 & links therein. I more than skimmed both, but did not learn how the He is separated from the CH4. I can think of two ways:

    (1) Cooling CH4 (& any CO2, etc.) to liquid state with well designed counter flow heat exchange system to keep energy cost down. You would get some energy saving later when the cool CH4 exiting from heat exchanger is compressed to pipeline pressure as a "credit"
    (2) Pressure differential across some selective filter thru which only the He can pass. I'm not sure that such a filter exist, but a hot palladium sheet will pass H2 with small pressure difference - almost as if it were not there. One probably could use the pipeline pressure (no extra cost) on the naural gas side, and pull a mild vacuum on the He side. Energy required for that vacuum would be directly proportional to the He flow and the pressure you then wanted to store the He at.

    You probably know how it is done - please tell if you do.
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 4, 2010
  17. kmguru Staff Member

    It is basic fractionating column where methane is cooled and liquefied at the bottom while Nitrogen, helium and neon is collected at the top. Of course, CO2, H2S etc are separated before entering the Fractionator.

    The gases from the top of the high-pressure column are cooled in a condenser. Much of the nitrogen condenses into a vapor and is fed into the top of the low-pressure column. The remaining gas is called crude helium. It contains about 50-70% helium, 1-3% unliquefied methane, small quantities of hydrogen and neon, and the balance nitrogen.


    Crude helium must be further purified to remove most of the other materials. This is usually a multi-stage process involving several different separation methods depending on the purity of the crude helium and the intended application of the final product.

    * The crude helium is first cooled to about -315° F (-193° C). At this temperature, most of the nitrogen and methane condense into a liquid and are drained off. The remaining gas mixture is now about 90% pure helium.
    * Air is added to the gas mixture to provide oxygen. The gas is warmed in a preheater and then it passes over a catalyst, which causes most of the hydrogen in the mixture to react with the oxygen in the air and form water vapor. The gas is then cooled, and the water vapor condenses and is drained off.
    * The gas mixture enters a pressure swing adsorption (PSA) unit consisting of several adsorption vessels operating in parallel. Within each vessel are thousands of particles filled with tiny pores. As the gas mixture passes through these particles under pressure, certain gases are trapped within the particle pores. The pressure is then decreased and the flow of gas is reversed to purge the trapped gases. This cycle is repeated after a few seconds or few minutes, depending on the size of the vessels and the concentration of gases. This method removes most of the remaining water vapor, nitrogen, and methane from the gas mixture. The helium is now about 99.99% pure.

    More at:
  18. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    To Kmguru thanks again for your words and link. More complex than I imagined. Also extended my understanding of fractionation column.

    I spent one summer working with one, but of the more common type where heat was supplied at the bottom. (I now realize the obvious that a cold bottom also works!) At start of the summer I mixed 55 gal drum of benzine and 55 of toluline and spent the summer trying to see how well they could be separated.

    Object was to evaluate a new "packing material" the filled the column in terms of "theoretical plates." As I recall, column was about 2 meters tall and I got 22 theoretical plates with best separation run.

    The small oil company paying me (Lion Oil in Arkansas, surely has been bought up now) was considering buying tons of the little curled perforated metal pieces I was evaluating for them. I never learned if they did as wrote my report and returned to school but I had the impression that they would if it could do 20 T.P.s in my small column. - approximately one every 10 cm.
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 6, 2010
  19. kmguru Staff Member

    While I was a plant engineer at Exxon refinery and chemical complex right after college, all I did was troubleshoot any problems that arose during the operation. Then I moved to an engineering company that specialized in natural gas processing via cryogenic process. Here I learned to design control systems for the Fractionation Tower. It was not as easy. In the past, when things went wrong like the gas feed lost incoming pressure from the wells, it will mess up half a day to stabilize the reaction.

    So, I had to design fancy algorithms using out of all things, pneumatic computers. Those were the days. In early 90's, when I was in a similar complex situation, all I had to do was reprogram the computer....including taking in to account the weather as in winter, rapid temperature drops would mess up the process transfer function.

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