Saturday, April 28, 2018

"Venting about the Helium Market"

We too have been enchanted by the light one, most recently in "News You Can Use: 'Learn How to Build a Nuclear Fusor'":
...Low-power fusors produce a beautiful purple ion plasma “glow discharge” similar to plasma globes and neon signs. In high-power fusors, the inertia of the ion collisions squeezes hydrogen atoms tight enough to fuse, hence the term inertial confinement.

High-power fusors typically fuse deuterium (D or 2H) into helium and tritium. Deuterium is a hydrogen isotope whose nucleus contains a neutron in addition to the usual single proton. It occurs naturally in very low concentrations, primarily as hydrogen deuteride (HD) but also as “heavy water” (D2O), “semiheavy water” (HDO), and deuterium gas (D2). Only 1 in 6,000 hydrogen atoms is deuterium. Tritium (a hydrogen atom with two neutrons and one proton) is even rarer.

When two deuterium atoms fuse they create a high-energy helium-4 atom, which stabilizes itself by releasing a proton, a neutron, or a gamma ray. This release leaves behind a tritium atom, helium-3 atom, or helium-4 atom, respectively....
From the Conversable Economist:
The US Department of the Interior has identified a list of 35 "critical minerals," which is "a mineral identified to be a non-fuel mineral or mineral material essential to the economic and national security of the United States, the supply chain of which is vulnerable to disruption, and that serves an essential function in the manufacturing of a product, the absence of which would have significant consequences for the economy or national security."

I'm constitutionally skeptical of such lists. It often seems that when supplies of a "critical" mineral decline and price rises, there is a short-term spike in articles talking about a "crisis." But then the  market responds to the higher price with a mixture of finding new sources, increased recycling, or finding ways to substitute for that mineral in a substantial number of uses. Life goes on. As one example, here's my write-up of "The Rare Earths Shortage: A Crisis with a Supply and Demand Answer" (March 10, 2015). Yes, rare earths remain on this "critical minerals" list. Another entry on the critical minerals list is aluminum, and I have previously discussed "The National Security Argument for Steel and Aluminum Tariffs" (March 7, 2018).
I can't claim to have looked at all 35 items on the critical minerals list, but one that does perplex me is the quite peculiar market for helium. Stephen T. Anderson lays out the background in "Economics, Helium, and the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve:Summary and Outlook," which appears in Natural Resources Research (December 5, 2017). Here is his quick summary of the peculiarities of the helium market from the abstract:
"In 2017, disruptions in the global supply of helium reminded consumers, distributors, and policy makers that the global helium supply chain lacks flexibility, and that attempts to increase production from the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve (the FHR) may not be able to compensate for the loss of one of the few major producers in the world. Issues with U.S. and global markets for helium include inelastic demand, economic availability of helium only as a byproduct, only 4–5 major producers, helium's propensity to escape earth's crust, an ongoing absence of storage facilities comparable to the FHR, and a lack of consequences for the venting of helium. The complex combination of these economic, physical, and regulatory issues is unique to helium, and determining helium's practical availability goes far beyond estimating the technically accessible volume of underground resources."
These issues are not new. Back in 2008, for example, Science Daily was reporting "Helium Supplies Endangered, Threatening Science And Technology" (January 5, 2008). In 2010, Nobel prize-winner in physics Robert Richardson, who shared the prize "for their discovery of superfluidity in helium-3," was giving speeches which ran under headlines like "The world is running out of helium: Nobel prize winner," (, August 24, 2010)... 

July 2017
Google's Nuclear Fusion Project Is Paying Off
June 2017
Qatar: Helium shortage looms
The helium shortage is always coming, to date we don't have many substitutes for the element, but the arrival of the crisis keeps getting delayed...

We've been tracking the helium biz for a while.
Helium prices balloon as supplies run out
Every couple years we run a story similar to this. Because of the physics and chemistry helium is one of the few irreplaceable elements. But...and that's a big but...if you want to make the big money go for the isotope, Helium 3 rather than straight up He, you'll make a fortune in the electricity biz.

"... America’s Helium Crisis"
“Chances are you’ve heard little or nothing from your constituents about helium over the past 15 years,” 
-Walter Nelson, director of helium sourcing at Air Products and Chemicals


"GE, Siemens Plead with Lawmakers to Preserve Federal Helium Reserve"

April 2013
Chemistry: Periodically, We Tell Element Jokes
Funnier than three helium atoms: HeHeHe.

Helium Problem Solved
The article says helium is derived from natural gas. This is incorrect. As one of the noble gases He doesn't react with much of anything so more correctly helium can be found in proximity to methane.

Pedantic much? Yeah, that was me.