Chemical Economics Handbook Helium

The global helium market suffered under massive supply constraints during 2011–13, which caused severe shortages and greatly reduced demand as consumers started to either substitute or recycle helium. The situation improved toward the end of 2013, when the Qatar Helium II project came onstream midyear, but swung quickly into oversupply with additional capacity from the expansions in Algeria and the United States at the end of 2013 and in 2014. During the shortage, long-term contracts were fulfilled on 70–80% allocation only, with strategic applications, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), given priority. Because of the tight supply and even supply interruptions, helium end users started to look at substituting helium with another gas (e.g., with hydrogen in gas chromatography) or recovering and recycling helium. With new plants coming onstream in Algeria, Qatar, and the United States, and with the demand-destroying shortage, the helium market quickly became saturated. Prices declined significantly as a result of the increased supplies as several refined helium producers experienced problems finding a market to meet their take-or-pay commitments. The following pie chart shows world consumption of helium:

Helium is an inert gas and the lightest of all gases except hydrogen. Helium is produced in the natural environment continually by the radioactive decay of uranium and escapes into the atmosphere. Since the concentration of helium in air is very minimal, extraction of helium from air is not economically viable. Helium is typically extracted from helium-bearing natural gas. It is also extracted from the vent gases from some liquefied natural gas (LNG) processing plants. The entire global helium supply depends on roughly 20 liquefaction plants, located in the United States, Poland, Russia, Algeria, Qatar, China, and Australia. The United States is still the major producer, but most new sources are developing elsewhere. The bulk of US production is related to the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), which manages the world’s largest helium reserve. In recent years, BLM-related production has diminished considerably. Helium is a global product in tight supply and any disruptions create shortages and dislocation. Growth in the global demand for helium is driven by rising demand for MRI, along with growth in the electronics, semiconductor, LCD, and fiber optic industries, which are centered in China, India, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Middle East. Up to 20% of global helium demand is estimated to come from the manufacture and operation of MRI scanners alone. In 2015, an estimated 25–30% of global helium was consumed in liquid form, with this share being higher in developed regions. In the major consuming regions—the United States, Western Europe, Japan, China, and Other Asia—MRI was the largest application for helium in 2015, accounting for almost 19% of total consumption, followed by semiconductors/electronics, welding cover gas, and fiber optics. Demand for liquid helium grew particularly rapidly in the late 1980s and the 1990s, primarily as a result of demand for use in MRI and NMR machines. During operation, MRI scanners require liquid helium to cool their superconductive magnet coils to a temperature that can be reached only with helium.
Because of its extremely low boiling point, helium is the medium of choice for cryogenic experiments. For current commercially available superconducting magnets, helium is the only material available to maintain the low temperature necessary for generating the superconducting effect. Applications for helium-cooled superconducting magnets include particle physics research facilities, such as Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory’s Tevatron/Tevatron I particle accelerator, Brookhaven National lab, Los Alamos National Lab, Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, and Argonne National Laboratory’s magnetohydrodynamic propulsion system. Several Western European particle accelerator systems use helium, including the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. Current research is under way to use supercooled helium for improved global positioning systems (GPS) in submarines and airplanes. The study, funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation, examines helium-4 that is cooled to nearly absolute zero, when helium becomes a frictionless fluid and produces a whistling sound. That property can be used in making sensitive gyroscopes that enable better navigation. One of the largest uses for gaseous helium is in welding, where it provides an inert gas shield to protect the weld zone from the atmosphere. The two major welding processes that use helium are gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW) and gas metal arc welding (GMAW). The semiconductor and electronics industry is a significant consumer of helium. Demand growth has been driven mainly by the emergence of larger-diameter silicon wafers. As the electronics industry is now preparing for the 450-millimeter-diameter wafer, it is expected that the electronics industry will use considerably more helium to satisfy its cooling needs. Helium-3 is used for constructing neutron detectors. By some estimates, around 70 liters of helium-3 can be used per detector. In recent years, various governments have built a significant number of neutron detectors, mostly for security issues. Demand for this application has increased by at least an order of magnitude since the mid-2000s. The future growth of helium is expected to be driven by demand from electronics manufacturers in China, South Korea, and Taiwan. Semiconductor manufacturing, flat-panel display manufacturing, and optical fiber manufacturing are all significant consumers of helium in Asian markets. While worldwide demand is expected to grow only 2.0% per year, demand in these countries is expected to grow close to double that rate. With high-tech manufacturing shifting to Asian countries, the US and Western European share of worldwide demand is expected to continue to decline.

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On The Edge Of A Golden Age Of Space Exploration

Reusable rockets will make space exploration more affordable in the future – SpaceX and Blue Origin are all over it

Better known for founding Amazon, which sells everything to everyone, #Jeff Bezos is enthusiastic about his #Blue Origin spaceflight company and the concept of reusable rockets. Well, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out the probable truth in his claim that using reusable rockets will make #space exploration more affordable in the future. Nevertheless, to put the concept into practice does take rocket scientists and they have been hard at work at the Seattle-based company doing just that.

Bezos’ first reusable rocket did it five times
Jeff Bezos put a lot of his own money into developing the New Shepard rocket and in the last year it has been launched and relaunched five times. This is the first time a rocket has been used more than once. Bezos pointed out to the Smithsonian Magazine that there are obvious cost savings involved in reusable rockets. “When you look at expendable rockets today, the cost of propellant is only about 1 percent of the cost of the mission,” he said.

The golden age and moon mining
Bezos believes that just as the Internet grew exponentially, that space exploration will be the golden age of the future. Reporter Charles Fishman quotes him as saying, “I believe that we are sitting on the edge of a golden age of space exploration.” This is something that all the major countries of the world have anticipated, and especially within the mining and energy industries, great interest is being taken in the possibilities of using rockets to access space to harvest minerals.China is talking about wanting to mine the moon. The Telegraph reported that China is particularly interested in Helium-3 which is abundant on the moon. Helium-3 is “possibly one of the most valuable substances in nature, one that could provide energy for the world.”

Elon Musk’s SpaceX
The concept of reusable rockets has been hailed as one of the top ten breakthrough technologies in recent times. The MIT Technology Review points out that while Blue Origin is thinking along the lines of transporting passengers, another company, Elon Musk’s SpaceX needs the technology for satellite launches and to run supplies to Space Stations. SpaceX was not far behind Blue Origin in working on a reusable rocket design. Reporter Brian Bergstein nutshells the future of space exploration that will ride on the backs of these two Billionaire space exploration pioneers, by writing, “it’s now clear that the future of spaceflight will be far more interesting than the Apollo-era hangover of the past 40 years.”

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China Long March 5 Rocket Launch Could Usher In Helium-3 Fuel Age

China is asserting its intentions of becoming not just the greatest superpower on Earth, but in space too, as it launches its powerful Long March 5 rocket into orbit. While the US and the USSR were the early dominating powers of space, the current state of play has seen a number of other organisations – both governmental and private – assert their own presence in an increasingly crowded orbit. One of the fastest developing is the economic global powerhouse of China. The country has invested billions in spacefaring technology, the latest of which is the giant Long March 5 rocket.

Rivals world’s largest payload space freighter

According to, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) has launched its newest rocket into orbit, ushering in a new age for Chinese space exploration. What makes the Long March 5 so important for China is that aside from doubling the payload capacity of any previous Chinese booster, it now rivals the payload of the current world’s largest space freighter, the Delta IV Heavy rocket, manufactured by United Launch Alliance. Constructed and perfected over a period of nine years, the rocket and its 10 engines lifted off from the launch pad at the Wenchang space centre in southern China, where it then entered into Earth’s orbit. Also on board the rocket was the mysterious Shijian 17 spacecraft, which Chinese authorities have given very little information on. However, it has revealed that it contains an electric thruster package test, which could one day be used on board satellites to get them into different orbits with greater efficiency. Now that the Long March 5 rocket has achieved a successful inaugural flight, China can set its ambitions to be the dominant player in decades to come, with regard to mining helium-3 on the moon. The gas has long been heralded as the fuel of the future, as it would play an integral part in a potential nuclear fusion reactor that could produce cheap, near-limitless and relatively clean energy.

One small step for China, one giant leap for helium-3

While it remains one of the rarest isotopes naturally available on Earth, there are thought to be significant supplies on the moon, having served as a sponge for helium-3 emitted from the sun for billions of years. However, aside from powering experimental nuclear energy technology on Earth, helium-3 could also be used to power spacecraft of the future on long missions into deep space. This first launch of the Long March 5 rocket will now also be used to send a robot to the surface of the moon next year. The purpose of this is to retrieve samples of its surface, to analyse – among other things – the quantities of helium-3. Following that, the rocket will also power China’s ambition to send its first Mars rover sometime in 2020. In the meantime, the CNSA will continue to gradually build its own space station in Earth’s orbit having launched its second space lab, the Tiangong-2, last September.

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NASA Is Really, Really Worried About SpaceX


A massive explosion back on Sept. 1 is causing a lot of worry among NASA officials about SpaceX’s weird way of fueling up.

NASA is raising some major questions about SpaceX, specifically how it goes about fueling procedures in light of the catastrophic Sept. 1 launchpad explosion. A NASA advisory committee has issued stronger warnings about how SpaceX fuels rockets that will eventually be carrying humans on board. SpaceX wants to take astronauts from Earth to the International Space Station on the Crew Dragon spacecraft, but it plans to do so in a most unusual way: by fueling the spacecraft with humans on board. Basically, the company uses chilled liquid oxygen to fit more fuel in the tank and take more weight into orbit, but it requires that the spacecraft be fueled immediately before launch so the fuel doesnt warm up. SpaceX says it’s a tried and true process, but NASA is clearly concerned about this departure from the norm. “There will be continued work ahead to show that all of these controls are in place for crewed operations and that the verifications meet NASA requirements,” SpaceX said in a statement. “These analyses and controls will be carefully evaluated in light of all data and corrective actions resulting from the anomaly investigation.” “The Accident Investigation Team continues to make progress in examining the anomaly on September 1 that led to the loss of a Falcon 9 and its payload at Launch Complex 40 (LC-40), Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida,” SpaceX said in an Oct. 28 update. “Since the incident, investigators from SpaceX, the FAA, NASA, the US Air Force and industry experts have been working methodically through an extensive fault tree to investigate all plausible causes. As part of this, we have conducted tests at our facility in McGregor, Texas, attempting to replicate as closely as possible the conditions that may have led to the mishap. “The investigation team has made significant progress on the fault tree,” the statement continues. “Previously, we announced the investigation was focusing on a breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank. The root cause of the breach has not yet been confirmed, but attention has continued to narrow to one of the three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside the LOX tank. Through extensive testing in Texas, SpaceX has shown that it can re-create a COPV failure entirely through helium loading conditions. These conditions are mainly affected by the temperature and pressure of the helium being loaded.”

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SpaceX Blames Recent Rocket Explosion on Helium Loading


Two months ago, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, destroying both the rocket and its payload, an Israeli communications satellite bound for orbit. Now, after two months of investigation, SpaceX thinks it has figured out the cause: improper helium loading. In September, SpaceX narrowed down the suspected cause of the explosive failure—which SpaceX prefers to characterize as an “anomaly” or even “fast fire”—to “a large breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank.” Now, SpaceX has been able to narrow down the cause even further and even replicate a similar failure through manipulating variables related to helium loading, particularly the temperature and pressure at which the fuel is pumped in.

As SpaceX puts it:

Previously, we announced the investigation was focusing on a breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank. The root cause of the breach has not yet been confirmed, but attention has continued to narrow to one of the three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside the LOX tank. Through extensive testing in Texas, SpaceX has shown that it can re-create a COPV failure entirely through helium loading conditions. These conditions are mainly affected by the temperature and pressure of the helium being loaded. Narrowing down the cause of any rocket failure is important since rocket explosions are dangerous and their payloads tend to be unique and expensive. It’s particularly noteworthy in this case since SpaceX had appeared to be entertaining some other, more colorful possibilities, like an epically long shot by an saboteur with a sniper rifle posted up on a nearby building owned by rival United Launch Alliance (ULA). The investigation is still ongoing but it seems more and more likely that, yes, boring old helium is to blame.

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