July 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

The discovery of the Higgs Boson particle announced on July 4 in Geneva was a science event of moment.  For those still in the dark on this matter (by the way this is a poor astrophysics joke) this discovery essentially proved the Standard Model of elementary particles and the forces they exert on each other.  The Economist devoted the front cover to it in a recent issue.  And none of this would have been possible without helium.  And we may be running out of it.

Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, after hydrogen.  But terrestrially it is in relatively short supply, at least in usable concentrations.  But first a word or two on what it does for us.

Helium is known as a noble gas because it is relatively inert, that is it does not react easily with other species.  Use in welding relies on this property.  But most know it for being lighter than air, leading to party balloons and blimps.  The most famous blimp in history, the Hindenburg, was lost because of the flammability of that other light gas, hydrogen.  Helium when inhaled constricts the vocal chords and one sounds like Alvin the Chipmunk.  A somewhat more esoteric property is the ability to stay a liquid down to a temperature of nearly Absolute Zero, which is defined as – 273 C.  That may seem to be just a number, but it is the number at which all molecules essentially stop moving.  That is pretty daunting.  Fortunately, it is believed that this temperature cannot be achieved.  But liquid helium brings one within whispering distance.

Extreme cold is need for certain magnets to be effective, especially in the medical diagnostic application of Magnetic Resonance Imaging, commonly known as MRI.  Effectiveness of magnets is the critical property needed to make the Large Hadron Collider effective.  This particle accelerator at CERN in Geneva is the facility that discovered the Higgs Boson.

So, it is critical for important devices and industrial practices and is considered to be a strategic commodity.  And yet, it is cheap enough to be used in party balloons.  This oddity is due to the fact that the US government decided in 1960 to create a strategic reserve and then bleed it out for use.  This sale is then made at a relatively low cost, today at about $75 per thousand cubic feet (mcf) for raw helium; processed gas costs more.  75% of the helium supply in the world is from the US, and half of that is from the reserve.  Consequently the world price is determined by the US government release from Cliffside.  This is the name of the storage facility near Amarillo, Texas. 

To make things even odder, Congress decided in 1996 to get the feds out of the helium business by 2015, seemingly to encourage privatization of the business.  Investors did not get the memo.  We are in 2012 now; nearly 35% of the world’s supply comes from Cliffside.  Drawing it down to zero by 2015 sounds Draconian even for the current less-than-functional Congress.  A bill to extend the deadline has been wallowing around for a while. They inherited the problem for sure, but are likely too busy with other matters such as dealing with Justice Roberts’ epiphany.

So, where does the helium come from presently and what is possible?  All the US sourced helium is from the Hugoton natural gas field and from one other in Wyoming.  The content is up to 1.9%, which is anomalously high relative to other deposits.  At these concentrations it pays to separate it out.  The hot area of shale gas is not a promising source.  The small helium atom tends to escape in the reservoir and so one would expect the concentrations to be very low.  In fact, unfortunately, helium is generally found associated with high nitrogen containing natural gas.  This usually renders it uneconomical.

An interesting source would be a bi-product of liquefied natural gas (LNG) production.  When the gas is chilled to -162 C to make the methane liquid, the remaining vapor is rich in helium even if the original gas has very little of the stuff.  This is in fact happening in Qatar despite the helium being less than 0.1%.  Qatar is now the next highest producer to the US.  One could expect the same in Australia, with massive LNG facilities, and possibly even in the soon to be permitted Cheniere Energy plant in Louisiana, although for that one the concentration could still be challenging if shale gas is the raw material source.  But if LNG becomes popular for long haul transport and the gas source is chosen carefully, helium could be a bi-product.

Suffice to say that if something is not done to improve helium supply much of MRI could be rendered MRIP: magnets resting in peace.

Vikram Rao


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