The world is running out of helium – but the U.S. government is squandering our strategic stockpile.
We’re almost giving it away, selling it below market value – when all predictions are that the price is about to skyrocket 20- to 50-fold.
The price of a helium party balloon could reach $100. Scientists predict that the world’s supply of this lighter-than-air gas will be gone by the year 2015.
Yet with disaster on the horizon, the U.S. government is mismanaging America’s reserves without apology.
There is just so much helium on our planet. It is common on Uranus and Neptune and even on the moon. But there’s very little here. Because it is lighter than air, whenever it is released into the atmosphere, it rises higher and higher until it dissipates into space.
Most of the helium on earth has been guarded for decades in an underground salt dome near Amarillo, Texas, stockpiled by the U.S. government.
Back in 1925, the U.S. recognized that helium was vital to U.S. interests. It was strategic to keep it out of Nazi hands turning World War II, forcing Hitler to fill his zeppelins with highly explosive hydrogen – resulting in such disasters as the zeppelin Hindenburg disaster.
The U.S. then kept helium out of Communist hands during the Cold War, impeding the development of Soviet missile research.
However, in 1996, Congress ordered that all of the helium held in America’s reserves be sold before 2015 – and at bargain-basement rates. That’s particularly bizarre since once it’s gone, it will be incredibly expensive to replace.
It will be far too expensive to have helium-filled cartoon characters in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. The gas will be far too precious for such a frivolous use. When it occurs naturally on Earth, it is found in natural gas. Historically, U.S. natural gas has been rich in helium while natural gas in other parts of the world have very little helium.
So, with scientists yelling warnings, has the U.S. government halted the sell-off of America’s helium reserve?
No, not even though a number of scientific studies have called for immediate action. Once America’s helium stockpile is depleted, purging the fuel tanks of the world’s ballistic missiles and space rockets will be come far more costly and difficult. The cost of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) for medical diagnostic purposes will become prohibitive.
Arc welding may disappear since helium is needed to create an inert atmosphere around the flame. Helium is also vital for leak detection – although hydrogen can be used, but has problems, including being highly explosive.
Helium is inert – it won’t burn or mix with any other element. So, it is nonexplosive and completely safe.
NASA uses it to pressurize space shuttle fuel tanks. Deep-sea divers depend on it to prevent the nitrogen "bends."
Kennedy Space Center alone uses more than 75 million cubic feet annually. Liquid helium, which has the lowest melting point of any element at -452 degrees Fahrenheit, cools infrared detectors, nuclear reactors, wind tunnels and superconductive magnets.
So, why is America almost giving away its helium? That’s an absolute mystery. Apparently Congress decided that the government had no business being in the helium business – although it has no problem being in the mortgage, automobile, student loan and banking business – to name just a few.
American natural gas is rich in helium, a phenomenon not occur in European natural gas. As a result, Nazi Germany had to use highly explosive hydrogen in its dirigibles, zeppelins, blimps and other lighter-than-air aircraft.
America’s refusal to sell helium to Hitler infuriated the Fuhrer. The luxury airship Hindenburg was designed to use helium, but when efforts to get America to drop its embargo failed, the Nazis converted it to use hydrogen – which actually has better lift. As a result, the Hindenburg was able to add more compartments and house more passengers. However, hydrogen is extremely volatile.
The Hindenburg was destroyed in an spectacular explosion and fire on May 6, 1937 that was broadcast by radio worldwide.
The disaster severely dampened public enthusiasm about traveling in hydrogen-filled airships. Thirty-six people died in the accident, which occurred at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey.
During the Second World War, helium was strategically important because of its use in military airships. The Allies made heavy use of helium-filled blimps to guard its naval vessels and coastlines – a strategy unavailable to the Axis forces.
During the Cold War, helium became even more important because of its uses in the purging of rocket fuel in intercontinental ballistic missiles.
In 1960, America’s national reserve was established in the salt dome of a disused natural gas field 30 miles north of Amarillo, whose chamber of commerce declared the west Texas city the "Helium Capital of the World." In a park next to Interstate 40, Amarillo even has a monument to helium.
About a billion cubic meters is still stored there as well in pipelines that extend underground for more than 200 miles from Amarillo to a refinery and storage facilities in Kansas.
But it will soon be gone. The 1996 Helium Privatization Act directed that all U.S. government helium should be sold by 2015 at a price that would pay off the federal government’s original investment in building up the reserve. The law stipulates the amount of helium sold off each year should follow a straight line with the same amount being sold each year, irrespective of the global demand for it, according to Professor Richardson, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on helium-3, a rare isotope.
He says the sell-off is a mistake.
"As a result of that Act, helium is far too cheap and is not treated as a precious resource," he said. "It’s being squandered."
Richardson co-chaired an inquiry into the impending helium shortage convened by the U.S. National Research Council, an arm of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
Their report recommends that the U.S. government immediately reconsider its folly – and halt the sales.
"They couldn’t sell it fast enough and the world price for helium gas is ridiculously cheap," Professor Richardson told a recent meeting of Nobel laureates from around the world at Lindau in Germany. "You might at first think it will be peculiarly an American topic because the sources of helium are primarily in the U.S., but I assure you it matters to the rest of the world also.’
Richardson says the price for helium will rise by between 20- and 50-fold. "Once helium is released into the atmosphere in the form of party balloons or boiling helium it is lost to the earth forever.
There are two kinds of stable helium. The most common form fills birthday balloons and the Goodyear blimp.
The other kind, helium-3, is missing a neutron. It is the fuel for a form of nuclear fusion that, in theory, could provide the world with a clean, virtually infinite power source. Gerald Kulcinski, director of the University of Wisconsin’s Fusion Technology Institute, says that his research is already halfway there – however could halt if helium becomes too expensive.
Kulcinski is in charge of an "inertial electrostatic confinement device," an experimental low-power reactor that has successfully performed continuous deuterium- helium-3 fusion – a process that produces less waste than the standard deuterium-tritium fusion reaction.
"The next step, pure helium-3 fusion (3He-3He) is a long way off, but it’s worth the effort," says Kulcinski. "You’d have a little residual radioactivity when the reactor was running, but none when you turned it off. It would be a nuclear power source without the nuclear waste."
If we ever achieve it, helium-3 fusion will be the premier rocket fuel for centuries to come. It could provide more power per unit of mass than anything else available. With it, rockets "could get to Mars in a weekend, instead of seven or eight months," says Marshall Savage, an amateur futurist and the author of The Millennial Project: Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps.
The problem? We may run out of inexpensive helium – and therefore helium-3 – before the fusion technology is even developed.
At our current rate of consumption, our reserves near Amarillo will be empty soon.
"‘For the scientific community, that’s a tragedy,’ says Dave Cornelius, a Department of Interior chemist.
If the Texas strategic reserve is depleted, more can still be extracted from natural gas. However, once the reserve is gone, the price will go up. A major question is why the federal government doesn’t sell helium at market prices.
Incidentally, helium is common in the universe and there’s a supply not far away from Earth. However, the cost of retrieving it may be prohibitive.
"‘The moon is the El Dorado of helium-3,’ says Savage. Every star, including our sun, emits helium constantly.
Implanted in the lunar soil by the solar wind, helium can be found on the moon. Professor Tim Swindle and his colleagues at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona have already begun prospecting. Swindle has mapped likely helium-3 deposits on the moon by charting the parts of the lunar landscape most exposed to solar wind against the locations of mineral deposits that best trap the element.
But he admits that retrieving it is not going to be as easy as simply tapping the reserves in Texas.