US Congress acts to avert helium shortage

Sep 26, 2013

The US Congress, entrenched in a titanic budget battle, managed to come together Thursday to pass legislation that prevents a market shortage of helium.

In a rare show of consensus between feuding Democrats and Republicans, the Senate unanimously passed a bill approved earlier by the House of Representatives that cancels closure of the national helium reserve.

The closure had been planned for October 7, but manufacturers and the medical industry had expressed concern that the move would hurt them.

The Federal Helium Program, operated under the Bureau of Land Management, supplies some 42 percent of the lighter-than-air gas used in the United States, and roughly 35 percent of global demand.

Helium, an inert chemical element extracted from natural gas, has been produced and stored by the US government since World War I. It was initially used for military purposes, including in reconnaissance aircraft.

It is now considered essential for the , fiber optics and computer chip manufacturing, welding, as well as several medical fields including . And for party balloons, of course.

"The impending abrupt shutdown of this program would cause a spike in helium prices that would harm many US industries and disrupt national security programs," the White House's Office of Management and Budget said in a policy statement last week.

By October 7, the government would have been required to end helium sales to the private sector, which has yet to develop sufficient infrastructure production and could have faced a surge in prices.

Several industrial giants including General Electric, Intel and Siemens, as well as dozens of university professors, started a campaign to lobby Congress about the need to change course.

The bill, which now awaits President Barack Obama's signature, provides for continuation of helium sales by auction until the reserve is gradually depleted.

Explore further: Probing Question: Are we running out of helium?

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User comments : 15

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axemaster
4.2 / 5 (5) Sep 27, 2013
This doesn't make any sense. How does keeping the helium reserve open help anybody? The helium reserve is a finite store of helium. Eventually it will run out irrespective of whatever laws are passed, and when it does the price of helium will shift to reflect the actual supply, which is very small. This is inevitable.

The real problem here is that helium is a nonrenewable resource, and many special applications are dependent on it. Many medical scanners and scientific instruments use liquid helium as a cryogen, and it is irreplaceable in this role. So by dumping helium on the market for absurdly cheap prices, we are ensuring that it won't be available to the people who actually need it for important purposes.

Instead it ends up being used in children's balloons and military observation balloons, both of which leak profusely. All that helium eventually escapes the atmosphere into space. Incredibly wasteful and shortsighted, even for the USA.
Grallen
1 / 5 (1) Sep 27, 2013
They are delaying because they need to delay. There is not enough production now, but it is increasing.

"...private sector, which has yet to develop sufficient infrastructure production..."
VendicarE
2.6 / 5 (5) Sep 27, 2013
America. The land of the walking stupid.
axemaster
5 / 5 (3) Sep 27, 2013
They are delaying because they need to delay. There is not enough production now, but it is increasing.

"...private sector, which has yet to develop sufficient infrastructure production..."

It isn't going to increase enough to meet demand, ever. Helium is a byproduct of gas production, which is already about as high as it's going to get because continuing to increase production will crash the prices. Nobody mines helium for the purpose of mining helium, and they never will, because it's a trace gas in gas reserves.
Shootist
1 / 5 (9) Sep 27, 2013
The solution to so many other problems: Drill Here, Drill Now for He4.

Oh, and some boffin should consider convincing the gob'mint to salvage all the He3 formed from H3 decay in the nation's nuclear arsenal.
Shootist
1.4 / 5 (9) Sep 27, 2013
Finite amount of He4 in the nation's helium reserves?

Finite amount of atoms in the Universe. So f'in what?

Nuclear decay continues to form He3 and He4 within the mantle and crust of planet Earth, regardless of the number of hammerheaded posts decrying the end of all.
sirchick
5 / 5 (1) Sep 28, 2013
I wonder how they will tackle helium shortages.... does the moon have decent supply we can tap into ?
Moebius
2.3 / 5 (6) Sep 28, 2013
Helium is a non-renewable resource, I'll bet we're still wasting it on kids balloons though because hydrogen is 'dangerous'.
ryggesogn2
1.5 / 5 (8) Sep 28, 2013
An alpha particle is a helium nucleus. Add two electrons and, voila, He.
freehit
not rated yet Sep 29, 2013
Just curious, is this the same reserve that was being sold off a decade or so ago? I remember reading an article that showed acres of high pressure plumbed up storage bottles that the government wanted to sell for scrap. It made it sound as if it was a "done deal" and I thought of the waste of resources at the time as a penny wise dollar foolish type of idea. If it is the same depot, I'm glad they didn't scrap it after all.
Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Sep 29, 2013
How large a particle accelerator would you actually need to produce helium out of water?
worddigger
5 / 5 (1) Sep 30, 2013
They need to keep it so Congress can keep sending up political 'Trial Balloons'
VendicarE
1 / 5 (3) Sep 30, 2013
"An alpha particle is a helium nucleus. Add two electrons and, voila, He." - RyggTard

How many particles of Helium are there in 2 grams of the stuff TardieBoy.

How many thousands of years do you intend to take to capture that many alpha particles?

Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Oct 01, 2013
How many particles of Helium are there in 2 grams of the stuff


Approximately 10 to the 23

How many thousands of years do you intend to take to capture that many alpha particles?


It depends on the radiation source. If we intentionally made a particle accelerator that fuses hydrogen, even at an energy loss, we could make quite many in a single year.

CANDU reactors for example produce tritium, which continuously decays into helium. So far we've managed to make 255 kilograms of the stuff completely artifically, just as a byproduct of nuclear power.
ryggesogn2
1.7 / 5 (6) Oct 01, 2013
But nuclear reactors are BAD don't you know?

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