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Earth The Almighty Buck

Price Shocks May Be Coming For Helium Supply 362

Posted by kdawson
from the squeaky-voice-price-inflation dept.
Ars has an update on the potential helium shortage we discussed a couple of years back. A Nobel laureate, Robert Richardson, argues for ending market distortions that are resulting in an artificially low price for helium, which is accelerating the projected exhaustion of the supply. "Richardson's solution is to rework the management of the Bush Dome [so named for reasons that have nothing to do with the politician] stockpile once again, this time with the aim of ensuring that helium's price rises to reflect its scarcity. In practical terms, he said that it would be better to deal with a 20-fold increase in price now than to deal with it increasing by a factor of thousands in a few decades when supply issues start to become critical. But he also made an emotional appeal, stating, 'One generation doesn't have the right to determine the availability forever.'"
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Price Shocks May Be Coming For Helium Supply

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  • We can make clones on the moon and insert fake memories into them - who wants to spend money on training? Then we can power the world with H3 :D
    • No thats Helium 3. The best sources of Helium are in the four gas giants but I think the price locally would have to rise by a factor in the billions to make extraction economical.

      On a personal note my eight year old son asked me the other day how helium balloons work and could we get a bottle of helium to play around with. Looks like I should do that before the price goes up.

      And I wonder exactly how dangerous it would be to use hydrogen for party balloons? The density in the balloon will be low, but the b

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Jafafa Hots (580169)

        Looks like I should do that before the price goes up.

        Or, you could explain to him about the situation with helium that you wouldn't want to waste a rare, precious resourse that might be unavailable to future generations even for more important uses, should we continue to use it frivolously today.

        • by swb (14022) on Monday July 05, 2010 @07:56PM (#32804508)

          Mom, why is dad such a boring, sanctimonious pain in the ass?

        • Looks like I should do that before the price goes up.

          Or, you could explain to him about the situation with helium that you wouldn't want to waste a rare, precious resourse that might be unavailable to future generations even for more important uses, should we continue to use it frivolously today.

          Considering the amount of helium lost from weather balloons and airships I doubt my experiments will have an impact.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by sznupi (719324)

            But if you would multiply that by the number of all other people doing such experiments / fun and telling themselves (well, OK, mostly just don't know & don't care) that they don't have an impact?

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by zippthorne (748122)

            Yeah, airships should absolutely no longer be allowed to use helium for buoyancy. They ought to use hydrogen, hot-air, or, heck, even nitrogen.

            When there are so many alternatives, there's no good reason to use helium, especially when there are medical and scientific uses that practically require helium to be effective. Ever try diving deep on hydrox? Hydrogen plus oxygen plus pressure is not a cocktail one would recommend lightly.

            • by Jeremi (14640)

              They ought to use hydrogen, hot-air, or, heck, even nitrogen.

              I've determined that the most efficient way to fill an airship is to evacuate it... a vacuum-filled airship would be much lighter than air, non-flammable, and vacuum is available in abundance throughout the universe.

              All I need is a sufficiently rigid balloon body...

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by deglr6328 (150198)

            I don't know why the post above responding to you is at +3 insightful. It is not. Because if you "multiply that by the number of all other people doing such experiments / fun and telling themselves that they don't have an impact" as Sznupi says, you still only end up with a trivial fraction of He use overall, since only 7% of all He production is used in "fill" applications for buoyancy etc. I'm pretty sure the majority of that 7% is going to fill weather balloons and blimps and the like as you note, and th

      • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Monday July 05, 2010 @07:46PM (#32804442) Journal
        Unless the hydrogen cylinder is slowly leaking into an enclosed room, it is basically as harmless as the helium one.

        Hydrogen will give a reasonably zesty(but ever so eco-friendly) explosion if mixed with oxygen in an enclosed space in the right concentrations; but, being less dense than air, tends to just float away unless well enclosed. Plus, at ~atmospheric pressure, H2 has crap energy density, so it is way less dangerous than larger hydrocarbon gasses and liquids.
    • by countertrolling (1585477) on Monday July 05, 2010 @07:50PM (#32804468) Journal

      The moon? There's lots more in the sun. Just stick a big straw into it and drain it out. Just don't let BP do it. They'll blow out a big hole and the thing will fly off like a balloon.

  • No Problem (Score:5, Funny)

    by LBArrettAnderson (655246) on Monday July 05, 2010 @07:25PM (#32804284)

    This isn't an issue... all we need to do is send some blimps up to collect all of the balloons that kids accidentally let fly away.

    • by Yvan256 (722131)

      Another idea would be to fill up a small house with balloons and... oh wait.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by DigitAl56K (805623) *

      All we need to do is make nuclear fusion work.

      • by Arthur Grumbine (1086397) on Monday July 05, 2010 @10:40PM (#32805782) Journal

        All we need to do is make nuclear fusion work.

        This is why this is a non-story. I have it from a very reliable source that practical nuclear fusion is only 20 years away. I spoke to my father and grandfather, and they assured me that this estimate was time-tested, and therefore, reliable.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by joggle (594025)

          Even practical nuclear fusion wouldn't generate nearly enough helium to meet today's needs. Fusion creates an incredibly tiny amount of helium. Even if all of the electrical power in the world was generated by fusion there wouldn't be enough helium produced to fill a single Goodyear blimp in a year.

          There's already shortages of helium-3 (an isotope that has to be manufactured). The entire world only produces 20,000 liters of helium-3 per year (it takes 368 million liters of helium to fill a blimp).

          See http:/ [nytimes.com]

  • by Crock23A (1124275) on Monday July 05, 2010 @07:27PM (#32804298)
    All I can think of is making kids laugh at parties by inhaling helium and then talking like a chipmunk. I will miss those days.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Zerth (26112)

      In the future, we'll do the trick with sulfur hexafluoride instead.

      At least until enough kids suffocate.

  • by Stumbles (602007)
    So lets see, discover helium behaves like glass under certain conditions; raise helium prices to reflect some "perceived artificial low" price; profit from a helium super fluids.
  • In the long term disney characters will finally be out of copyright and will no longer be popular. So we won't need helium to make those zany character voices. Better to use it now while the characters are still popular. That is the only use for helium right? Science? Pah, what's that!?

  • by BarryJacobsen (526926) on Monday July 05, 2010 @07:34PM (#32804352) Homepage

    One generation doesn't have the right to determine the availability forever.

    Like property rights, why should land only be able to be sold by those who got to it first (or bought it from those who did) - I wasn't able to compete with them and doesn't seem fair that my ancestors lack of ability to "win" should deprive me.

    And the same thing for all the minerals that have already been mined from the earth. And in fact, every single thing on the entire planet, ever.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by benjamindees (441808)

      doesn't seem fair that my ancestors lack of ability to "win" should deprive me.

      Similarly, your ancestors lack of ability to provide for their offspring shouldn't deprive me.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by fm6 (162816)

      So conservation == socialism? Why not, everything else does.

      • Where did the GP mention socialism? Since everything is socialism, your mention of socialism without it previously being mentioned means you are a socialist! :).
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by fm6 (162816)

          He phrases the whole issue in terms of property rights. The idea that some evil liberal-big-government cabal is down on the concept of private property is at the core of all arguments by people fulminating against "socialism."

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      One generation doesn't have the right to determine the availability forever.

      Like property rights, why should land only be able to be sold by those who got to it first (or bought it from those who did) - I wasn't able to compete with them and doesn't seem fair that my ancestors lack of ability to "win" should deprive me.

      And the same thing for all the minerals that have already been mined from the earth. And in fact, every single thing on the entire planet, ever.

      You're examples are interesting, and they

    • by selven (1556643) on Monday July 05, 2010 @09:33PM (#32805288)

      And the same thing for all the minerals that have already been mined from the earth

      Without mining minerals from the earth, we'd be stuck in the Stone Age. It's a tradeoff - our generation gets less minerals to work with, but in exchange we get all our technology. With that in mind, it's reasonable to say that things created by people are the property of their creators, since you have the same (arguably better with all of your aforementioned technology) chance at creating stuff that they did. Since everything on Earth that lasts long enough to be multi-generational and is scarce enough to bother having a property system around is either land, minerals or products, it looks like only land ownership is unfair (a point that can be argued rather convincingly, IMO).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 05, 2010 @07:35PM (#32804360)

    While on the train ride back from Germany, I read a headline in the Financial Times.

    "Mineral Prices Depress as Fear Dissipates"

    It was spot on. I was involved over the last year in a major project for the Dutch government on the topic of mineral scarcity. After a year of intensive research I came to the conclusion that the mineral scarcity situation was effectively the inability of manufacturers and managers to effectively communicate their material requirements. There is really no absolute scarcity on the planet. We've tapped less than 2% of the resource base on the planet. Unless we suddenly run out of energy, prompting us to slow down extraction of these minerals, it is unlikely we'll ever really be faced with a shortage.

    Needless to say, such analytical conclusions are not popular these days, we'd much rather claim there really is a scarcity situation as that would give the government something to do. Not a shock that the results of my study were warped, rewritten and omitted. In the end there was no science left in the report presented to the Dutch government. Just another fear piece, much like this one, which temporariliy increases the price of a resource so a few greedy bastards can make a buck while legitimate manufacturers get screwed with a major artificial spike in price.

  • Health care impact (Score:5, Informative)

    by adamwpants (858079) on Monday July 05, 2010 @07:39PM (#32804392) Homepage

    I work in respiratory care. We administer a 70%/30% mix of helium and oxygen, called Heliox. It is a low-density gas, making it easier to breathe for people with airway obstructions (such as asthma, throat cancer, etc.).

    The rising cost of helium may make Heliox prohibitively expensive.

    Just wanted to share that helium is for more than balloons.

    • by JDeane (1402533)

      Just switch to Nitrous Oxide!!!

      "I feel funny.... is this real life?"

    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Monday July 05, 2010 @07:50PM (#32804462) Journal
      Not to mention the use of superconducting(and thus typically liquid helium cooled) magnets in medical diagnostic imaging and medical research.

      No helium, No MRIs.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by retchdog (1319261)

      Since the only choices we've allowed ourselves are 1) use it all up now; 2) impose Strict Market Discipline, we're just going to have to go with the latter since the former is clearly nuts.

    • by turing_m (1030530) on Monday July 05, 2010 @07:55PM (#32804500)

      The rising cost of helium may make Heliox prohibitively expensive.

      Only if you don't recover it. At some price for helium, sucking the exhalations into a compressor, bottling it and selling it back to the gas company for reprocessing becomes cost effective. I don't imagine that recovering the helium would be difficult given the difference in densities between helium and other gases.

    • I work in respiratory care. We administer a 70%/30% mix of helium and oxygen, called Heliox. It is a low-density gas, making it easier to breathe for people with airway obstructions (such as asthma, throat cancer, etc.).

      The rising cost of helium may make Heliox prohibitively expensive.

      Are you already using rebreathers? That's one way of holding down costs. Another way is to find another light gas to form your low density mix.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by zippthorne (748122)

        Unfortunately, hydrox has some rather explosive risks. Not sure you want to be playing with it in an area where there might be sparks or flame sources, and there aren't many other options: you're looking for a diluent that's less dense than diatomic nitrogen, with an atomic mass of 28. Preferably a lot less. Not a huge range of possibilities there.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        Another way is to find another light gas to form your low density mix.

        Well there are a few limitations:

        You sure as hell aren't going to find a substitute for Oxygen.
        There is 1 gas that is lighter than Helium, and mixing it with Oxygen and introducing it in high enough volume to breath is dangerous as hell.

        So let's move up the Periodic table. If we can't do Helium, we go up the elements... Lithium, Beryllium, Boron, Carbon and finally.... Nitrogen, which puts us right back at regular air, and thus is pointl

    • by sznupi (719324)

      Except for some...interesting ;) secondary properties, would a 70%/30% mix of hydrogen and oxygen be equally fine as far as human organism is concerned? (hm, given controlled enough usage style?)

  • by Adrian Lopez (2615) on Monday July 05, 2010 @07:41PM (#32804404) Homepage

    It's as if a million chipmunk voices suddenly cried out in terror and turned into baritones.

  • emotional appeal? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by retchdog (1319261)

    It sounds more like a sound moral argument to me, but I guess anything which doesn't have a "$", "€", or similar symbol attached to it doesn't count as rational anymore.

    • Re:emotional appeal? (Score:5, Informative)

      by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Monday July 05, 2010 @08:03PM (#32804554) Journal
      There certainly is a moral element; but helium is a very special case, virtually unique among the elements of human relevance.

      Once it hits the atmosphere, it is inert enough not to combine with anything and light enough to diffuse into space. Game over. No mining the garbage dumps for this one. The only "recycling" that occurs is that in the sense that, if a piece of hardware hasn't been breached, you can remove the helium it contains before decommissioning it.

      The only earthly source of the stuff is assorted alpha-emitting radioactives, since an alpha particle is just a helium nucleus in need of electrons. Very slow. The only viable sources are places where it has had millions of years to be trapped underground, often with natural gas deposits. Once those are tapped out, we wait until some more alpha emitters decay.

      Helium also has some unique properties. There are other inert gasses(nitrogen is inert enough for many purposes, argon is even more so and doesn't float into space), there are other lift gasses(hydrogen, hot air); but if you want very cold fluids, liquid helium is it. Game over. Nothing better available. Hope you guys can figure out high-temp superconductors that don't quench at trivial magnetic field strengths before you run out...

      Virtually every other element or chemical of which we might "run out" we actually mean "run out of really inexpensive supplies". They also tend to be recyclable(in the case of elements and some chemicals) or synthesizable(if you have the energy), and they stay within our gravity well pretty much no matter what you do.
      • Isn't it possible to manufacture helium with fusion? I mean fusion is still not good enough for producing electricity, but it should be able to make helium using hydrogen and electricity.

      • Facts (Score:4, Informative)

        by DCFusor (1763438) on Monday July 05, 2010 @08:50PM (#32804936) Homepage
        Most helium is released from nat gas flares in oil wells, as at current prices it's not worth recovering either if the well is far from concentrated "civilization". And as the parent mentions, that's it, it's lost. Yes, you can make helium with fusion, and I even do it here, but in amounts that make a microgram look like large lots. Lemme know when a fusion reactor makes energy gain -- I'm working it, but....not yet. www.coultersmithing.com has some info there. Helium 3 is in far shorter supply (always, but now it's really critical) and it is because the DHS has taken it all for portal neutron detectors -- you can't buy it as a civilian (or the detectors new) for ANY price whatever. Sometimes can find it in a used detector, that's about it, and CERN is crying because they need that for their superfluid He dilution coolers. This is a separate but also important issue -- 3He is a decay product from Tritium mostly and we just don't do much of that anymore. There's only a tiny amount in natural He, which of course we're just letting whiz into space because we don't want to pay the rent to store the stuff.
    • Re:emotional appeal? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Rockoon (1252108) on Monday July 05, 2010 @09:02PM (#32805022)
      Agreed.

      He has basically put all the badness of using up a resource on the single generation variant. Its as if its not bad when more-than-one generation depletes a resource...

      I've got news for him. The generation that doesnt have access to the resource doesnt give a fuck how many generations it took to use it up.
  • by martyb (196687) on Monday July 05, 2010 @07:45PM (#32804436)
    I RTFA and am pleased to report that it was *really* light reading! ;)
  • will all be about the fight to successfully manage the earth: its climate, its species, its fisheries, its water, its minerals, its energy sources etc

    and those who just want to consume, consume, consume, with no forethought, and then: "hey, where'd all the stuff go?"

    but in some areas of this country, when you talk about managing things intelligently and prudently, you're some sort of anti-american fascist liberty destroying socialist

    why is that?

    if that sort of propaganda is allowed to prevail, our grandchil

    • by fotbr (855184) on Monday July 05, 2010 @08:36PM (#32804810) Journal

      why is that?

      I live in redneckland. It sucks at times and is great at others. But maybe I can give you some insight as a result.

      1) Often, "intelligently and prudently" comes across as very condescending, and that doesn't sit well with most people, regardless of their intelligence or social status.

      2) People around here have a very high distrust of anyone that doesn't believe the same as them. Yes, that means religion, and their belief that anyone who isn't their particular variety of christian is automatically "wrong" in some manner. Add to that the fact that most people haven't ever lived far from where they grew up, and a distrust of most "big city folk", and a paranoia of those from either the east or west coasts.

      3) Most of the things you mention aren't an issue around here, so there's also a big case of "out of sight out of mind". Fishing? That's a way to spend the afternoon drinking beer; not a way of life (though some of the bass fishermen would call those fightin' words). Aquifer depletion? Not a huge deal here (yet). Oil? Again, not produced here, and no one will care until it all goes away.

      4) Things that work in the more densely populated area simply won't work here. Small commuter cars are great in cities and suburbs. A better system of public transit and light rail would be completely awesome to have. But they really don't work out in the rural areas. So various proposals that have been made regarding high taxes on gas, or on "gas guzzlers" (specifically light trucks), are seen as directly and unfairly targeting them.

      5) Incomes out here are very low compared to the coasts. So while people in Boston or LA may not think much of something that might cost an extra $1000 / year per family, people out here often cannot afford it. When a family of 4 are barely getting by on an income under $30k before taxes are taken out, ANY increase is difficult. Being told "it's worth it" by someone out east making 6 figures, with no kids, and a wife/husband/partner who ALSO makes a nearly 6 figure salary, doesn't go over very well.

      6) Lastly, when they try to make any of these points, they're often dismissed with little thought because they often don't come across as terribly educated. So when they find anyone willing to listen, they can be fiercely loyal.

      I'm not saying any of these make people around here right (indeed, I often disagree with them on just about everything), just trying to explain part of what's going on.

    • So what have you done? That is, other than post rants against something straight out of Amalgamated Stereotypes, Ltd?
    • When will fox news start a heliumgate discussion how the science is skewed, we have yet to reach peak helium, and that humans couldn't possibly be at fault for this problem?
    • Actually, I have a really really good solution to this problem. There could be resource tokens, made of cheap materials, like paper. You could trade them for metal, oil, land, etc. You could also trade them for people's time and skills. Scarcer resources could be worth more resource tokens. If you dump acid overboard, you have to pay resource tokens. Maybe these tokens could have pictures of presidents on them or some- oh wait. Money. It will manage those resources for us.

      but just keep ignoring the fish stock depletions, the aquifer depletions, the increased consumption of oil that just gets deeper to dig up, the slowly rising thermostat

      Trust me, many, many people (incl

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Mspangler (770054)

      "will all be about the fight to successfully manage the earth"

      And you got it in one, once you add the part that it's even more about managing people, as in dictatorship.

      You will decide what car (if any) I get to drive, you will decide what I eat, when I'll be allowed to have kids, what medical care I'm eligible for, and so on.

      That's the not so hidden agenda that riles up people so well. I don't know if you intend to be one of the new slavemasters or not, but someone is pushing for that role. Richard Heinber

  • by ckedge (192996) on Monday July 05, 2010 @07:59PM (#32804530) Journal

    1. Bottle helium
    2. ...
    3. Profit

    FUCK YEAH.

  • The days of sounding like an oompa-loompa with old birthday balloons are over! Back to plugging my nose.
  • Whew! (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Well...I'm GLAD I have a 1200cc/min hydrogen generator then. I've been making hydrogen balloons for years with it. I take them outside and blow them up...or inhale them to sound funny...Should have seen what I did yesterday for the 4th....

    I guess I could use them for children's birthday parties huh?? Just hope some little girl doesn't think she's cute and rubs it in her hair to make it staticy and BOOM!!! I'm kidding. I guess b*day parties will just have to be dull with no balloons that float.

    Here's a tip:

  • Pipeline to Jupiter.

    Sheesh. Wake me when you have a *real* problem.

  • by mykos (1627575) on Monday July 05, 2010 @08:52PM (#32804954)
    But you have to harvest it from a giant fusion reactor with the biggest gravity well in the solar system
  • Land of Oz (Score:3, Funny)

    by SoundGuyNoise (864550) on Monday July 05, 2010 @10:17PM (#32805606) Homepage
    Doesn't the Lollipop Guild have representatives to handle this kind of financial crisis?

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