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We’re Really Not About To Run Out Of Helium–No, Please, Stop It, We’re Not

I seem to have been reading stories about the impending end of helium supplies for some years, if not decades.

It seems to be one of those recurring classics that journalists (or whatever they are called now) come up with every so often, if they’re stuck for a sensational headline.

This was the most recent manifestation of story that I saw flagged up in one of my feeds recently.

The world uses around six billion cubic feet a year and without it, life-saving MRI scans which rely on magnet-cooling liquid helium would be impossible. In recent years, interruptions to the helium supply have caused disruption to medical research projects, prompting experts to calling for urgent action on rationing.

The shortage of an element that is used widely in science and industry could also mean no more helium-filled party balloons. Last month, US retailer Party City announced it was closing 45 of its 870 stores, citing in part the increasing scarcity of helium. The firm later announced that it had found another supplier to meet demands for the lighter-than-air gas that fills its balloons.

The world’s supply of helium, vital for MRI scanners, is running low – but a lucky find may prevent disaster

You may want to stop and think for moment, at the inconsistencies in that quote.

If helium is so vital for ‘life-saving MRI scans’, shouldn’t there be some sort of legal protection in place for supplies if they really are running out and are so vital?

If helium really is running out, then shouldn’t there be a ban on filling frivolous party balloons with what little there is left, since the helium in them is going to be lost when they’re burst, or discarded?

On the other hand, society is sometimes pretty stupid when it comes to looking after scarce resources.

If I wanted to spend the time, I could probably waffle on about this, and even be in danger of ‘preaching’, but don’t worry, I won’t (as I have better things to do with my time).

Others have prepared better explanations than I could, and that’s where the title of this post came from.

This one’s worth a read whenever the “The Sky is Falling – Helium’s Running Out!” story is given its regular now  regular airing…

One of the old favorites among the we’re going to run out of resources stories appears to be raising its head again. The idea that we’re about to run out of helium. I’m afraid this is simply untrue and the reason that people don’t get this is because people just aren’t understanding what a mineral reserve is. The general idea that most people do have is that it’s the reserve of some mineral that’s available to us to use. Which it isn’t: a mineral reserve is an economic concept meaning the amount of a mineral that we’ve got prepared for us all to use in the near future. And it really is an economic concept too: the origins come from stock market listing rules so the entire concept is firmly rooted in the idea of profitability.

Given that I’ve just published an entire book (see the signature link) on this very point I should probably be the person to point out the error in this story. We get a mention of it at Boing Boing and their reference is to Priceonomics. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the piece except that it entirely fails to get to grips with the most basic points about the subject under discussion. They’re right about the National Helium Reserve and so on, but those are the details, not the major points.

So, our definition: a mineral reserve is that amount of some mineral that we have identified the location of, weighed, measured, tested the extraction of and proven (and the proof is the extremely important part here) that we can, with current technology, and at current prices, make a profit by extracting it.

The reason we use this economic definition is because we don’t want people investing in mining stocks to be ripped off any more than they already are. So, if someone says “I’ve got some gold reserves” they’d better be able to prove it. To a known standard, one that’s signed off by a reputable engineer. A mineral resource is a slightly weaker version of this (we’ve proven that we can probably etcetc.)

Neither mineral reserve not mineral resource have anything at all to do with the amount of whatever mineral is ultimately available. Not just not a very good guide, but there’s no relationship at all between mineral reserves and how much of a mineral there is.

We’re Really Not About To Run Out Of Helium–No, Please, Stop It, We’re Not

Isotpes matter

I should probably also mention helium isotpes, relevant to some of the more advanced uses of helium.

Hopefully this table displays properly, and shows the relevant percentages of the two stable isotopes.

Isotopes Isotope Atomic mass Natural abundance (%)
3He 3.016 0.000134
4He 4.003 99.9999

Clearly, there’s not a lot of helium-3 around.

I mention it because it’s how I was alerted to the ‘silly’ helium shortage story, by someone involved in the detection of neutrons, as their instruments depend on the stuff, and it was given a boost by the Cold War (don’t you miss the Cold War, it brought is so many goodies).

Helium-3 is made up of two protons and one neutron and the isotope is rarely found in nature, although it is produced as a decay product of tritium, a component of nuclear weapons. During the cold war, the US, Russia and other countries stockpiled tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, and in doing so accumulated vast amounts of helium-3. Initially, this resource was barely tapped – in fact the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and its predecessor agencies, which have maintained the US tritium stockpile, used to consider the gas so useless that they vented it into the atmosphere. In the 1980s, however, scientists began to realise the potential of helium-3 as a neutron detector.

Interestingly, while stories that reported panic over helium-3 supplies used to accompany the airing of the “Running Out of Helium” airings in past years, I don’t see them in the recent panic alerts.

Is it no longer an issue?

Or just too much effort, or too technical an issue, for the journalists trying to whip up some interest (or panic) nowadays?

I hate writing about chemistry type stuff (remember, I’ve mentioned it’s the one subject I was never taught, at all).

I know the physics side, but chemistry remains a mystery to me, even when I try, there’s no ‘intuitive’ insight ever kicking in for me.

Helium-3 and Helium-4

Helium-3 and Helium-4

22/06/2019 - Posted by | Cold War |

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