Energy

We may not be running out of helium after all

We may not be running out of h...
Vast new sources of could keep helium-filled balloons a party staple
Vast new sources of could keep helium-filled balloons a party staple
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Vast new sources of could keep helium-filled balloons a party staple
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Vast new sources of could keep helium-filled balloons a party staple

Helium is the second most abundant element in the Universe, but it's relatively rare on Earth – so much so that some have called for a ban on party balloons to ward off a worldwide shortage. However, a team of scientists led by Diveena Danabalan of Durham University conducted a new study that indicates that there may be vast new sources of the gas in the western mountain regions of North America.

First detected in the spectrum of the Sun, in a century and a half helium has become a key resource in our high-tech world. The noble gas is used in cryogenics, MRI scanners, semiconductor manufacturing, welding, deep-sea diving, and blimps and balloons – though the latter makes up a surprisingly small fraction of the demand.

The problem is that even though helium makes up almost a quarter of all matter in the Universe, it's very rare on Earth with the main supply coming from natural gas wells in North America. This is because helium is a very light element that, once it escapes into the air, floats off into space. Hydrogen is lighter, but it's common on Earth because hydrogen is captured in molecules of water or organic compounds. Helium, on the other hand, forms no compounds even with itself except a few highly unstable ones under extraordinary laboratory conditions.

Recent studies have pointed to a drastic decline in known helium reserves and no large discoveries to replace them. This being the case, the fear is that we may run out of helium so soon that some scientists, such as Cambridge University chemist Peter Wothers, are calling for an end to its use in party balloons.

For the new study, a team of scientists from Durham and Oxford Universities looked at natural gas regions in North America, where they subjected gas samples from 22 wells in the United States and Canada to mass spectroscopy. By analyzing the isotopes of helium, neon, and argon, they were able to gain a better understanding of how helium is produced, transported, and trapped in the Earth.

Most helium on Earth is helium-4 (4He), which is produced by radioactive decay deep inside the planet. Over hundreds of millions of years, it migrates up to the crust, where it is released during periods of tectonic activity. By comparing the ratios of 4He with neon-20 (20Ne) in the helium-rich Hugoton-Panhandle gas field running through Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, the team found that released helium dissolves in groundwater, which transports it to natural gas deposits. According to Danabalan, This mechanism indicates that much more helium is waiting to be tapped than previously thought.

"We identified neon isotope tracers which show a strong association between helium and groundwater," says Danabalan. "This means that in certain geological regions, groundwater transports large volumes of helium into natural gas fields, where trapping potential is greatest. This suggests that we have probably underestimated the volumes of helium which are actually available to explore.

"On a continental scale, and we are talking about a line running right down the Rocky Mountains, we are seeing processes which are releasing the existing helium which has been built up deep underground over hundreds of millions of years," she continued. "In some places, like in Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, the deep helium is released directly into the atmosphere. In others, we are seeing that the deep helium which was released when the Rocky Mountains formed has percolated via the groundwater into the same underground reservoirs where we find natural gas. This means that there are almost certainly reservoirs of helium which we had not anticipated. More importantly, understanding how and why helium arrives in these reservoirs means that we now know where to look for new helium resources."

The team's findings were presented last week at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Prague.

Source: European Association of Geochemistry

12 comments
Ent
Future generations will curse us with disgust and hatred, as they find out we've consumed every last drop of frackable oil, and every last bubble of trapped helium.
Derek Howe
Alana, did you not read the article? We have a bunch more then we previously thought...I wouldn't worry about running out. As for oil, we have centuries worth of oil, which will obviously last far more then that because that is based off of us continuing to use ICE vehicles. In which the shift has started to EV's. We can even make synthetic oil, so we not short of methods of lubrication. Every indication is that we have decades & decades worth of helium, by the time we tap all of what the earth has to offer, we will be a space fairing civilization, in which we will have space mining companies that will go out and retrieve whatever gases or minerals that we need. We are already seeing that in it's infancy now, with Space X making space access cheaper, and companies like Planetary Resources making space mining a reality. Bottom line, don't worry about humanity's future, were a scrappy bunch. :)
Bob Stuart
We may have to go after those supplies, even after the era of fracking disasters, because we don't have the sense to regulate the venting of helium to obtain natural gas when the market only wants the hydrocarbons. I do hope Derek will head out looking for helium in a cool location soon, though.
Catweazle
Fracking disasters Bob? What fracking disasters? Ah, you've been watching 'Gasland', haven't you? For Alana, the Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones, the Fossil Fuel age won't end because we ran out of fossil fuels.
Tom Lee Mullins
I think that is really good news. I like the blimps. I think it is also good for anyone want to make a rigid airship along the lines of the Hindenburg with newer technology.
carbon
Based on the new geologic paradigm of how oil and natural gas is expelled, or not expelled from source rocks, we could easily have 10 Trillion barrels of oil resources on the planet- the old assumptions were that oil and gas were expelled and migrated to porous reservoirs (where helium was also trapped) but then we realized that only a small percentage of the oil and gas generated ever left the source rocks- so now we have hydraulic fracturing in source rocks. That means we may have only used 10% of what is available, so it is correct that lack of oil will not be the reason we stop using it. And no, according to the EPA and even California's government sponsored study, there have been no fracing disasters. Those have been only in the minds of imaginative environmentalists prone to hyperbole and exaggeration, usually for their own profit (e.g. Gasland- a now fully debunked documentary funded by HBO). Helium reserves have never been quite as low as sometimes believed, but the very small percentage of helium in the gas reservoirs that produce it (3%-0.004%) have become less and less economical to extract. Russia and Quatar have huge reserves of helium that the article fails to mention. The real problem with helium supplies has been government pricing that flooded the market making it uneconomic to produce most new reserves. Because the US government is the largest seller of helium their "minimum" price became the maximum. When Congress decided to sell the US Helium Reserve in 1996 the price went up at first but then leveled off at a price that will not sustain production of new helium by typical extraction methods. That may change simply because helium may become a byproduct of LNG plants, where extremely low concentrations of helium can be extracted during the liquefaction of gas. Helium however, may be the one resource on the planet that could run out, assuming we use it faster than it is produced by radioactive decay, because helium does leave the atmosphere, never to return. It is probably the ONLY non-renewable resource on the planet.
habakak
As always, we find out we are not running out of X (replace X with whatever you like).
aerojim
Alana and Catweazle have points I agree somewhat with. The bigger issue to me is the warped costs (even disregarding the external environmental, health, etc costs) that allow oil and gas extractors to suck investors in on the far costlier extraction methods (leaving us vulnerable to all the rest of the worlds suppliers that can use less extreme/less costly methods of extraction. I suspect the economics of extracting the Helium in the US makes them just let it escape as they try to get more oil profits, letting much more natural gas escape/flare off. The industry seems to have said we don't have that much Helium in our natural gas, making it cheaper to buy it from Russia. But then, these are the guys who's talking heads claim tiny amounts of "Methane" escape (1% to 4%), as lower echelon field workers claim to be proud of reducing the flaring to 29% (which still produces a lot of CO2). I wonder how much of their opposition to reducing methane leaks is linked to what I think is their gross under reporting of Methane (with many other chemicals/gases) leaks. Seems their establishing corrupt Industry Self-Reporting (over actual independent auditors) seriously under reported what was leaking, making it seem nearly impossible to get the reductions being asked. Perhaps they should ask for amnesty and give us the real figures, though I suspect they would then sand bag them the other way (to make it appear they were reducing them). AN interesting bit of history (at least to me) was Rep Christopher Cox (later chairman of the SEC) getting legislation to sell off our Strategic Helium Reserve (at give away prices) back in the '90s. It seems hard to get reliable figures when financial, and gutted, political appointee contaminated, agencies start warping available data for their fun and profit. Current generations should curse these jokers, now, and get them to quit distorting the development and fielding of real cleaner, cheaper, and safer energy sources so constrained by interference from profiteers that don't give a hoot about the impact on average people and our overall economy/real productivity. How does this compare with past transitions held up by profit over people?
Douglas Bennett Rogers
The oil will probably outlast its use a principal fuel, just as wood did. If nuclear fusion kicks in more helium will be generated.
MontanaPhil
I worked for Unocal before it got bought up by Chevron and they had a helium extraction plant in a gas field in Moab, Utah. It was a cryogenic plant that was expensive to build and operate and I think at the time the price of helium wasn't high enough to support the plant, although the government bought a lot of it for strategic purposes. This was at least 25 years ago and I don't remember what happened to that field.