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Tue Nov 20, 2012, 10:07 PM

Stop the Parade! Should we be wasting our dwindling supply of helium on floating cartoon characters?

http://mobile.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/holidays/2012/11/macy_s_thanskgiving_day_parade_2012_helium_is_wasted_in_floating_parade.html


At projected rates of consumption, all the currently available helium on Earth will be depleted in about 40 years. While its best-known use may be filling balloons and making people who inhale it squeak like Mickey Mouse, the element’s scientific uses are arguably more valuable. No other gas is as light without being combustible. Those properties, as well as its very low boiling point and high thermal conductivity, make it indispensable for aerospace engineering, deep-sea diving, and cryogenics. So, while a world with no more balloons is a sad specter, without liquefied helium we wouldn’t be able to make superconducting magnets like those in MRIs.


The sorry state of our helium reserves can be traced to three key factors. Thanks to a 1996 act of Congress, the price of helium is artificially low, so there’s little deterrence for overuse. There’s also the fact that we have no idea how to artificially produce helium in any real, sustainable way. Finally, helium’s unique properties make finding a viable substitute almost impossible.

The helium we use today is found in underground gas pockets, often associated with natural gas. Helium is abundant in the universe, but here on Earth it is more elusive; while there’s a lot of helium in the atmosphere, it is very difficult to purify. It’s really only when it is trapped underground that we can isolate it. This helium is largely formed as a by-product of decaying radioactive elements. The rate at which it is produced accounts for less than one-half of global demand, and most of it cannot be recovered efficiently.Producing helium artificially is possible in theory, but only through fission or nuclear fusion of two hydrogen atoms. Fission is impractical because enormous quantities of heavy metals like uranium and thorium would be necessary, and fusion won't work because of the high energies required to combine hydrogen atoms to form helium. Commercial fusion energy is the goal of much research around the globe but is very far from being a reality. (The New York Times recently questioned the DOE’s investment in fusion research.) Even if fusion ever reliably produced more energy than is required to start the reaction, the industry would not take off for many decades, and the amount of helium produced would be marginal.Of course, there are those that think the helium panic is overblown. Some estimates claim the global supply of helium will last at least another 300 years. As helium becomes more scarce and expensive to purify, recycling will become more widespread, but recycling is possible for only certain applications.



The source of the helium we use now was discovered in 1903 in Dexter, Kan., when drillers happened upon gas that didn’t burn. They were disappointed, but chemists eventually studied the gas and realized that natural gas deposits in the United States often contain helium in single-digit percentages. As it turned out, the Great Plains was hiding enormous amounts of helium, and the United States quickly became, and remains today, the world’s biggest supplier of helium. Many uses were found for the gas—in particular, lighter-than-air travel. In 1925, the United States created the National Helium Reserve to ensure our dominance in the zeppelin wars that were sure to come. (The Hindenburg was filled with the very flammable hydrogen rather than helium because the United States controlled helium supplies and was loath to provide the gas to Germany.) In 1960, demand for helium increased, so Congress created incentives for natural gas producers to sell their helium to the helium reserve. This helium has been stored by the Bureau of Land Management in giant underground caverns in the Texas panhandle to this day.


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Reply Stop the Parade! Should we be wasting our dwindling supply of helium on floating cartoon characters? (Original post)
octoberlib Nov 2012 OP
rgbecker Nov 2012 #1
Squinch Nov 2012 #2
doc03 Nov 2012 #3
Salviati Nov 2012 #4
doc03 Nov 2012 #5
octoberlib Nov 2012 #6
Demeter Nov 2012 #7
lastlib Nov 2012 #8
Demeter Nov 2012 #9
hatrack Nov 2012 #10

Response to octoberlib (Original post)

Tue Nov 20, 2012, 10:19 PM

1. Who knew?

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Response to octoberlib (Original post)

Tue Nov 20, 2012, 10:24 PM

2. ...but....but....SNOOPY!!!!

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Response to octoberlib (Original post)

Tue Nov 20, 2012, 10:26 PM

3. Interesting, I worked in a steel mill where we had what we called an oxygen plant

I know we produced oxygen, nitrogen and argon. I never worked at the oxygen plant but I just assumed they also produced helium. On checking I see helium is only a tiny fraction of a percent of air. I just thought it was in the air and you could just separate the gases and have all you need. I had read that before about the Hindenburg and wondered why the Germans didn't just build a plant to produce it. Learn something new every day.

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Response to doc03 (Reply #3)

Tue Nov 20, 2012, 10:48 PM

4. It's not in the atmosphere, because it is too light to be held onto by the earth's gravity.

At the earth's temperature it all eventually escapes out into space, so any Helium that was once on Earth, or is produced in the Earth eventually leaves. Which is why it was first discovered in the spectrum of the sun, and only later on the Earth - hence Helium (Helios being Greek for the sun)

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Response to Salviati (Reply #4)

Tue Nov 20, 2012, 10:52 PM

5. I should have stayed awake in school more often I guess n/t

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Response to octoberlib (Original post)

Tue Nov 20, 2012, 11:24 PM

6. If Macy's ever stops using the floating balloon characters in their parades

I'm sure Fox News will accuse liberals of waging a war on Thanksgiving. I can see the chyron now.

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Response to octoberlib (Original post)

Tue Nov 20, 2012, 11:26 PM

7. Helium is generated by fission or fusion

If we need it badly enough, it will be manufactured.

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Response to Demeter (Reply #7)

Tue Nov 20, 2012, 11:42 PM

8. Not practical.

Fission is dangerous (think Fukushima/Three Mile Island), dirty, and very expensive, and the quantity of helium produced wouldn't be nearly sufficient to meet current, much less future, demand. Fusion isn't working yet to any viable degree, and cost in terms of energy consumed is astronomical. The dollar cost of what could be produced would make helium more valuable than gold.

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Response to lastlib (Reply #8)

Wed Nov 21, 2012, 07:09 AM

9. I never said it was PRACTICAL!

I said if we want it enough.

And there's a reasonable expectation that technology will advance to reduce the technical problems..

And being more valuable than gold is just the added incentive.

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Response to octoberlib (Original post)

Wed Nov 21, 2012, 09:02 AM

10. NO, because FREEDOM!!

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