Helium shortage prompts scientist's balloon use warning

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mobbsey
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Helium shortage prompts scientist's balloon use warning

Post by mobbsey »

They've missed a very important component of this story:

Most helium is produced as a by-product of oil and gas production from the oldest petroleum deposits -- the structures which trap the hydrocarbon also trap helium diffusing out from the Earth's core. See http://geology.com/articles/helium/

As the largest/oldest fields deplete so helium production has fallen -- and as no new fields on a scale as big as the super-giant fields that have been producing oil for half a century or so are found, so it gets more expensive to strip-out the smaller quantities of helium from the smallest fields.

So, oil/gas depletion isn't just an energy issue -- its has a knock-on effect on our use of high technology.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19676639

Helium shortage prompts scientist's balloon use warning

Mick Robson, BBC News, 21st September 2012


It is something guaranteed to catch the eye of most young children on a day out - a huge bunch of floating, brightly-coloured helium balloons for sale.

And for many people, a vital element in arranging a party is sitting down with a cylinder of helium to fill dozens of balloons with the lighter-than-air gas.

But according to one academic, such occasions may soon be a thing of the past.

Tom Welton, a professor of sustainable chemistry at Imperial College, London, believes that a global shortage of helium means it should be used more carefully.

Helium cools the large magnets inside MRI scanners - the medical devices that provide doctors with detailed images of what is happening inside their patients' bodies.

Prof Welton told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We're not going to run out of helium tomorrow - but on the 30 to 50 year timescale we will have serious problems of having to shut things down if we don't do something in the mean time."

He added: "The reason that we can do MRI is we have very large, very cold magnets - and the reason we can have those is we have helium cooling them down.

"You're not going into an MRI scanner because you've got a sore toe - this is important stuff.

"When you see that we're literally just letting it float into the air, and then out into space inside those helium balloons, it's just hugely frustrating. It is absolutely the wrong use of helium."

Helium is extracted from deep underground, where deposits of the gas have built up.

It is usually mined as a bi-product of natural gas extraction. But resources are finite and demand is increasing, which is why supplies are restricted.

Two years ago, the shortage of helium prompted the American Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Robert Richardson, to call for the price of one party balloon filled with the gas to cost more than £60.

"There is a current shortage," said Doug Thornton, chief executive of the British Compressed Gas Association - the body which represents commercial suppliers of helium and other gases.

"That has led to a two-year price-hike, although we expect that prices may drop again, as new reserves are found in places like Russia. But there aren't many alternatives in terms of supply."

Last month the UK's Balloon Association, which represents the party and promotional balloon industry, said prices were going up and supplies were under pressure.

It estimates that at present it costs between 30p and 50p to fill a single balloon with helium.

But John Lee, the association's chairman insisted that the helium its members put into balloons, was not depriving the medical profession of the gas.

"The helium we use is not pure," he said. "It's recycled from the gas which is used in the medical industry, and mixed with air. We call it balloon gas rather than helium for that reason.

"There is no way the balloon and party industry would even consider taking badly-needed helium from the medical profession. That is important - people have to come first.

"If I thought this industry was taking helium away from the medical profession, I would be looking at doing things differently."
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Post by featherstick »

Do the squeaky voice again, go on.
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Post by Little John »

There are alternative sources of helium. The problems are speed of supply and energy costs in extracting it.

For example, the atmosphere contains 280 billion litres of helium-3. This far exceeds all known reverses from natural gas. The trouble is, whilst 280 billion litres sounds like a lot, it is actually only 5 parts per million. As a result, the cost of producing helium from air has been estimated to be about 1,000 times more than that of producing helium from natural gas.

Another source is from tritium decay in heavy water nuclear reactors. The half life of tritium is about 12 years. Once it has fully decayed, helium is one of the by products. It has been estimated that of all of the worlds existing stored tritium could yield many hundreds of thousands of litres. Again, though, extraction would not be cheap and there are still problems with both absolute supply and speed of flow.
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Post by adam2 »

Yes, helium is a by product of natural gas production.
Peak natural gas=peak helium.

This is why I do not forsee any large scale use of airships or similar craft filled with helium.
Airships could be very useful and one might forsee slightly more use of them, but fleets of hundreds or thousands of large airships, no way.

Hydrogen could and arguably should be more used for small unmanned craft, it is cheap and even lighter than helium, but too flammable for manned craft.

Helium is indeed present in the air and may be extracted by liquefaction, but the process is exceedingly expensive.
Other rare gases such as neon, krypton, and xenon are used in electric lamp manufacture. These are extracted from the air, and the process could be combined with helium extraction, unfortunatly consumption of rare gases for lamp manufacture is declining as LEDs take over.
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Post by adam2 »

Another report to be found here

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24903034
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Post by RenewableCandy »

The flamable-ness of Hydrogen is over-rated. Those spectacular airship demises that everyone remembers, were in fact enabled every bit as much by the frames (Aluminium or wood) as by the gas.
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Post by SleeperService »

RenewableCandy wrote:The flamable-ness of Hydrogen is over-rated. Those spectacular airship demises that everyone remembers, were in fact enabled every bit as much by the frames (Aluminium or wood) as by the gas.
The 'paint' used to give that nice silver finish was also a rather large problem. The binder had a flash point below that of a static electric spark which would then burn hot enough to ignite the aluminium pigment.

In WW1 it took a very long time before the British learned how to shoot down a Zeppelin and even longer to actually get the technique right.

The biggest issue with hydrogen is keeping it contained, it's a smaller atom than Helium and can get through most things. IIRC the Germans used cow intestines stuck together for the gas bags!!
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Post by Tarrel »

SleeperService wrote:
RenewableCandy wrote:The flamable-ness of Hydrogen is over-rated. Those spectacular airship demises that everyone remembers, were in fact enabled every bit as much by the frames (Aluminium or wood) as by the gas.
The 'paint' used to give that nice silver finish was also a rather large problem. The binder had a flash point below that of a static electric spark which would then burn hot enough to ignite the aluminium pigment.

In WW1 it took a very long time before the British learned how to shoot down a Zeppelin and even longer to actually get the technique right.

The biggest issue with hydrogen is keeping it contained, it's a smaller atom than Helium and can get through most things. IIRC the Germans used cow intestines stuck together for the gas bags!!
The burning of the fuel for the engines had quite an impact as well IIRC. I remember discussing this at Uni in the late 70's, when we had a project going in the Engineering dept. looking at fuelling cars with hydrogen. (Not fuel cells, but rather injecting hydrogen directly into the internal combustion engine. Worked surprisingly well.)
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Post by adam2 »

The forecast helium shortage has arrived, with prices increasing rapidly.

IMHO, the use of helium for frivolous purposes should be strictly limited or even banned.
Apart from the need to preserve stocks for more serious purposes, the uncontrolled use of helium balloons adds to plastic litter, endangers wildlife, causes power cuts, and is an increasing cause of train delays.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-49715838
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Post by cubes »

Aren't party balloons something like 10% of the helium use a most? However, I do agree that they should be banned anyway, as less use will make stocks last longer.
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Post by Vortex2 »

Many years ago I realised that helium was at risk so I registered peakhelium.com etc as websites ... should have not let them lapse!
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