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Superconducting magnets under threat from helium scarcity

23 September, 2012
Researchers are now warning that the use of scanners and other machines may be increasingly disrupted by a scarcity of helium. Though no single cause can be identified the current helium shortage, which threatens to stymie research efforts, harm businesses and curtail technological and medical advances, one of the contributory factors is its use in party balloons and to creatre squeaky voices.

Helium, the world's second-lightest element, is disappearing so fast that experts are warning it could be gone as soon as 2025. In February, the US National Research Council published a report estimating that, given increasing consumption, the world may run out of helium in 40 years. Now physicist Robert Richardson, who won a 1996 Nobel Prize for work using helium-3 to make superfluids, has come forward to stress the folly of underselling our supply of the natural resource. He suggested in several interviews that the gas’s price should mirror its actual demand and scarcity. He estimates that typical party balloons should cost $100 apiece. "Yet you can buy enough helium to float 200 balloons for that price. We are squandering an irreplaceable resource," he says.“They couldn’t sell it fast enough and the world price for helium gas is ridiculously cheap,” Richardson told a summer meeting of Nobel laureates.“

This year alone, prices have gone up 20 to 30 percent, depending on what the helium source charges. Research facilities probing the structure of matter, using MRI medical scanners, neutron beams and other advanced devices that use the gas may soon have to scale back operations or close.

While anything lighter than oxygen will work to make balloons float, if you insist on having them, helium isn't optional in science. There are qualities to liquid helium that are essential (the ultra-cold liquid state is one, the inert qualities another, the weird friction and surface tension finish up the set) and no substitute exists.

Helium is also very important in trimix - the gas mixture that allows deep sea diving. Robots still can't do everything, so expensive helium means the cost of operations will skyrocket, which will push up the price of everything dependent on those operations.

Helium is an inert gas that does not react with other chemicals and is therefore safe to handle. It is important to science because, even at incredibly low temperatures, it does not solidify and so can be used, in liquid form, to run super-cool refrigerators, a vital resource for scientists working in many fields. With a boiling point of only 4K, liquid helium is used to cool some of the most powerful electromagnets on Earth, including those at Fermilab and the Large Hadron Collider. It’s the first known superfluid, a fluid that has many interesting properties, including absolutely no viscosity, and it will never come to rest or lose energy once you start it in motion.

Earth only has a limited supply of helium, despite it being the second most abundant element in the universe (hydrogen is the most abundant.) It is just that helium is scarce on Earth. There are only two places to find Helium. The first is the Earth’s atmosphere. The exosphere - the uppermost layer of the atmosphere - contains small amounts of helium. Compared to the rest of the atmosphere, five parts per million are Helium, which means that extracting Helium from the atmosphere is incredibly inefficient and expensive, so much so that we don’t do it. Helium from this source won’t stay in the exosphere forever and progressively evaporates from the earth. This is why helium recycling is important - if an aluminium can is not recycled, the problem isn’t that we lose the aluminium from the earth, it’s just that it will take more energy to get those atoms back into a useful form; but if helium is not recycled (and most is not) the atoms eventually leave the planet. Qatar and Algeria are two nations which are leading the way in helium recovery, though the helium plants, which supply the element to Asian countries, haven’t been operating at full capacity because they lack sufficient energy for production. However, helium has become "too cheap to recycle" and the sharply declining stock of the gas could ultimately spell doom for the medical industry.

Currently, the primary source of helium is released as a by-product of the petrochemical industry - it tends to be trapped in the hydrocarbons (including natural gas to some extent) which are in turn trapped in ancient sand deposits with various minerals above acting as a seal (though seals aren’t that crucial for the oil deposits where most of our helium comes from). Essentially, pockets of the gas are disturbed during gas and oil drilling and rise to the surface.

Part of the helium supply problem is the economics is driven by fossil fuel - standard accounting principles, which exponentially discount the future, say “don’t waste money capturing and storing more Helium than we need for current consumption”. Of course the economics theory of substitutability, does not consider having any Helium in (say) 100 years, assuming we will be clever enough to find alternatives (not recognising its unique properties).

Optimistically, the large natural gas fields in the Russian Federation will be developed in the next six to seven years and should, if managed responsibly, be able to supply helium for an additional 100 years of demand.

These underground stores of helium represent the supply of helium for all of our scientific needs, but when we use it up, we’ll have to wait million of years for it to build back up, or figure out some non-prohibitively expensive way to recover it from the atmosphere. It is so expensive that many are thinking of mining the Moon when we’re out of it on Earth (though mainly for He-3, which is a lot rarer than the usual He-4)! Probable distribution of helium-3 (3He) on the lunar surface is strongly linked to mare basalt with a high solar incidence and the presence of thorium and titanium oxide.

"The solar wind that pours away from the Sun is rich in helium, but it never reaches the surface of the Earth because of our thick atmosphere," said Dr Ian Crawford, of Birkbeck College, in the University of London. "However, our studies of rocks brought back by Apollo astronauts shows that it is absorbed by soil on the Moon. There are about 22g of helium in every cubic metre of lunar soil. There is also hydrogen in that soil, which astronauts could use for fuel and to make water, so you could envisage the day when it becomes economic to build mines on the moon to supply us with helium. It just depends how expensive our own sources become."

Geologist Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17 lunar module pilot, with Gerald Kulcinski of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has long and urgently advocated a fusion-powered Helium-3 Economy by 2050. Though not all the more familiar near side lunar 'seas' show the high likelihood of ready reserves of helium-3, Schmitt notes one area likely to hold future economical reserves of this commodity are within Mare Tranquillitatis and under the landing site of Apollo 11.

In 1925, the US decided helium would be a strategic resource and established the Natural Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas, because helium had been found in heavy concentrations in the Texas Panhandle. It realised that air power would be crucial in future wars, and assumed that these would be fought by airships that would use helium to float. "The US created a vast stockpile of billions of litres of helium in the 1920s and kept it until the late 1990s," says Jonathan Flint, the CEO of Oxford Instruments, whose scanners and other devices use helium for cooling. Then in 1996 Congress acted to phase out what was the established in 1925 to guarantee that helium would be available for necessary uses. The bill called for the Reserve to be depleted by 2015 and large quantities of helium were sold at cheap prices.

For the past decade that vast stockpile has been sold off, causing prices to plummet, allowing this vital resource to be used in party balloons and to make squeaky voices. The US are openly regretting what they now regard was ‘helium ignorance’, and are stringently denying Republican accusations they depreciated its value for maniacal Democratic millennium parties.

There is more helium at the Federal Helium Reserve outside Amarillo than anywhere else on the planet. Almost a third of the Earth’s supply is contained there in the Bush Dome, a far-reaching underground reservoir.

But that supply is dwindling. Current production rates and the reservoir’s geology put it on pace to continue producing helium only through the end of the decade, according to Senate testimony.

A bill introduced by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico, aims to ease the short-term scarcity until private industries pick up some of the slack. The legislation addresses a piece of the problem. In 1996, Congress passed a plan to phase out the reserve 15 miles northwest of Amarillo. To finish that effort, the government must pay off $1.3 billion in debt and interest to the US Treasury.

At the same time, the federal Bureau of Land Management is raising helium prices, to $84 per thousand cubic feet in the upcoming fiscal year, up $8.25 from the previous fiscal year. The spike comes after years of selling the gas at below-market prices and is aimed at helping the agency pay off its debts faster, according to Sam Burton, assistant field manager for helium operations at the Cliffside plant outside Amarillo.

The rub is that private producers aren’t yet filling the supply gap. That, in turn, creates a shortage of usable helium for its diverse uses, including arc welding, thermal imaging cameras, superconductors and fiber optic cables.

That’s why more time is needed to keep the Cliffside reserve alive than provided for in current law, which requires Land Management to sell off the reserve by 2015, according US Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon. Land Management would be forced to shut down the plant once the debt’s paid, he said.

“Abruptly shutting down the Federal Helium Reserve could cause severe disruptions in the private helium market,” Thornberry said. “Additionally, Land Management needs adequate time to responsibly sell off most of its remaining reserves without creating too much volatility in the price of helium.” Bingaman’s bill is a good start, Thornberry said. It would allow Land Management to continue selling the gas at market prices even after completing debt payments, something the bureau expects to do next year.

"Helium was cheap and we learned to be wasteful with it," says Oleg Kirichek, the leader of a research team at the Isis neutron beam facility at the UK's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. "Now the stockpile is used up, prices are rising and we are realising how stupid we have been." One of Kirichek's key experiments, designed to probe the structure of matter, has had to be cancelled - because the facility has run out of helium. The gas, used here to cool atoms to around -270C to reduce their vibrations and make them easier to study, is now becoming worryingly scarce, said Kirichek.

"It costs £30,000 a day to operate our neutron beams, but for three days we had no helium to run our experiments on those beams," said Kirichek. "In other words we wasted £90,000 because we couldn't get any helium. Yet we put the stuff into party balloons and let them float off into the upper atmosphere, or we use it to make our voices go squeaky for a laugh. It is very, very stupid. It makes me really angry."

"Helium is particularly important for running superconducting magnets. These have to be cooled to -270C to operate, and liquid helium does that perfectly. These magnets are now widespread and found in machines that range from the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva to MRI scanners in hospitals," said Professor Jim Wild, of Sheffield University. "Without helium, none of these machines would work. Unfortunately that threatens to be a real prospect in the near future."

Helium is used in MRIs to cool the magnets that create an image of a patient’s internal anatomy, GE Healthcare global sourcing manager Tom Rauch explained in Senate testimony earlier this year.

Rauch said GE Healthcare’s South Carolina base uses about 5.5 million litres of helium and the company distributes about 6 million litres to service magnets. The company has been using less helium in MRI machines in attempts to conserve supply, Rauch told the committee. “This is not an ideal situation because it calls for more frequent visits and ultimately leads to more downtime for the equipment and ultimately interrupting care to the patient,” he said.

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