Thursday, September 27, 2012

Will There Be A Worldwide Helium Shortage?

Thanks to their inherent ineptitude of all things scientific and commercial, did the US Republican Party manage to condemn the world to a looming helium shortage that could have been avoided back in 1996?

By: Ringo Bones

Primarily used as a lifting gas, the recent helium spike in price from 75.75 US dollars per thousand cubic feet to 84 US dollars had raised alarm bells to specialist traders with the wherewithal to know that in a worldwide helium shortage, we can very much kiss goodbye all of the modern “miracles” that runs our 21st Century civilization – as liquid helium is currently the only thing that makes the superconducting magnets of every MRI machine work. But is the looming worldwide helium shortage primarily a fault of the inherent ineptitude of the US Republican Party of all things scientific and commerce-related?

Back in 1996, the US Republican Party majority congress overturns the long-established Helium Strategic Reserve Initiative and allowed US government surplus reserves of helium gas to be sold off to private companies, privatizing the US Federal Helium Program, by requiring that all of the US government’s helium supply to be sold off by 2015. Given that the United States produces 30 per cent of the world’s commercial helium supply and privatizing it meant private helium producers will only make the gas if it can make a profit – what incentive is there to set up a “private” US helium strategic reserve? A bone-headed move that resulted in the recent price spike on commercially produced helium gas.

Currently, the US Senate is considering a bill called the Helium Stewardship Act of 2012 that would extend the 2015 deadline for the selloff of the Federal Helium Program thus allowing the federal government to continue supplying world markets with helium by selling it at market prices instead of government-set prices. But why such a noble gas called helium - which was for all intents and purposes – nothing more than an obscure scientific curiosity at the very tail end of the 19th Century be now inexplicably linked with humanity’s destiny for the next millennium?

When helium was first identified as an element back in 1868 by a spectroscopic analysis by a scientific team on an expedition that had traveled to India to study the Sun in during a scheduled solar eclipse – it almost reintroduced the concept of celestial matter – i.e. matter that is different from gross matter or earthly matter – which was previously debunked by Isaac Newton years before. Even in 1871, when Sir Joseph Norman Lockyer and Pierre Jules C├ęsar Jansen conclusively proved that that the “yellow line” of helium’s spectra was not due to any element found on Earth. The source of its discovery was commemorated in the name of the new element, the word “helium” being derived from helios – the Greek name for the sun. Almost a quarter of a century passed before helium was found to occur naturally on Earth.

In 1895, a few months after the discovery of argon, Sir William Ramsay proved that helium is present in the gas expelled when the mineral cleveite – a mixed ore of uranium, thorium, lead and traces of rare-earth elements – is heated. A year later, Heinrich Gustav Johannes Kayser demonstrated the presence of small amounts of helium in the atmosphere. In 1907, Hamilton Perkins Cady and D.F. McFarland analyzed natural gas from an oil well in Kansas which had not burned but extinguished flames and found it to be composed from 1.50 to 21.84 per cent helium.

Helium is widely distributed in nature, although usually in such small amounts that the cost extracting it from such concentrations is commercially prohibitive. The air we breathe contains 0.0005 per cent helium, only krypton and xenon are present in smaller concentrations. Since the early part of the 20th Century, the United States has been the leading supplier of the world’s commercially sourced helium from the only commercially viable source we know so far – i.e. from natural gas wells found in Texas and adjacent states. Such natural gas wells contain about 1.75 per cent helium and 0.5 per cent carbon dioxide, while the rest is composed of methane.

Commercially sold helium is normally extracted from natural gas wells by first extracting the carbon dioxide, then the gas is cooled to -185 degrees Celsius and compressed; this treatment liquefies all of the other gases, except helium and some traces of nitrogen and yields helium that is at least 98 per cent pure – a purity sufficient enough for use as a lifting gas for party balloons and airships. Another method of helium extraction from natural gas is the diffusion process using either quartz, which is almost impermeable to all constituents of natural gas except helium or gas diffusion process using fluorocarbon membranes such as Teflon FEP. Even though the gas diffusion method (quartz diffusion the most expensive followed by the Teflon FEP gas diffusion method) is a more expensive way to extract helium from natural gas compared to cryogenic cooling, it can provide a higher purity of helium for laboratory use.  

Helium is the first element in Group 0 of the Periodic Table. A colorless, odorless, tasteless gas, helium does not combine either with other elements to form compounds or with itself to form diatomic molecules. However, at low temperatures, helium may be incorporated into crystals of other substances as the crystals grow to form “inclusion complexes” or “clathrate compounds”. This may happen if the crystal grows in such a fashion as to form holes of the proper size to hold individual atoms of helium. The clathrate or latticed compounds can have reproducible formulas, since the number of holes in the crystal is reproducibly determined by the method of packing of the molecules. Helium is unusual in its low density, its extremely low boiling point, its close approach to an “ideal” gas and its close relationship to radioactive phenomena.

As the last of the gases to be successfully liquefied, helium – as in liquid helium – is very useful in cryogenic research, from cooling rockets just before launch and especially in superconductivity research. Although during the 1990s, a newer class of superconductors that exhibit conductivity in the liquid nitrogen range of temperatures had more or less reduced liquid helium’s role in superconductivity research as of late. But the most “radical” form or state of helium – called helium II – is produced when the gas is cooled further than ordinary liquid helium – as in only 2.18 degrees Celsius above absolute zero. Helium II is primarily used in the study of superfluid phenomena – i.e. fluids with zero viscosity and exhibit perfect flow that these fluids – like helium II, manages to flow out of their own open containers without tipping them.

Despite advances in robotics, the offshore crude oil drilling industry still can't do without human divers engaged in saturation diving to maintain the vital underwater portion of offshore oil rigs- which is also one of the most important commercial applications of helium. While breathing a 96 percent helium and 4 per cent oxygen mix at 20 to 30 times normal atmospheric pressure to enable commercial saturation divers  to dive over 1,000 feet under the sea, the special helium-oxygen gas mix allows humans to breathe in such relatively high atmospheric pressure environments without suffering physiological side effects of nitrogen narcosis and the toxic effects of breathing oxygen at such elevated pressures while going to and from normal to highly elevated atmospheric pressure deep diving environment during a typical saturation diving shift. 

As a lifting gas, helium – when 98 per cent pure - has 14 per cent less lifting capacity than hydrogen gas, which translates into helium lifting 84 per cent of the weight of displaced air. This means that if 7 cubic meters of helium can lift 7 kilograms, 7 cubic meters of hydrogen gas can only lift 1 kilogram more, but given the non-inflammability of helium, helium virtually replaced hydrogen as the lifting gas of choice in balloons and smaller airships still in use since the Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst, New Jersey back in May 6, 1937. 

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