Addressing The Helium Shortage

The helium shortage, party balloons and a revolutionary energy source – all the perfect ingredients for New Year knees-up say Russ Swan…

We’re in the full swing of party season as I write this, all the more concentrated at our place because the great annual feast of midwinter happens to coincide with significant birthdays and a rare reunion of far-flung family. What better excuse to lock out the national omnishambles and indulge in some serious knees-uppery? But there’s a downer. Parties need balloons, and proper balloons need helium. It’s well known that there is a shortage of the stuff, but I’m finding it increasingly uncomfortable to squander a non-renewable asset just for the sake of a celebration. It deflates the fun a little. Helium has more important applications than our domestic festivities, and is critical for some medical and laboratory applications, so I can’t feel too hard done by when opting for boring old mouth-blown latex balloons instead. A little light-headed, maybe, but that’s just given me a head start. The first irony is that helium is very, very common. Our local star produces hundreds of millions of tonnes of it every second, and it’s the second most abundant element in the universe. Ah, I hear you say, in the universe. But not around these parts. The stuff has the unhelpful habit of rising through the atmosphere and escaping whenever given the chance. The second, more serious, irony is that the present shortage seems to be entirely manufactured. For decades the only commercial source of helium has been a few boreholes in the USA. The story goes that when early 20th century oil prospectors found no black gold, but did discover huge quantities of gas surging from their boreholes, they thought they were about to get rich. The only problem was that they couldn’t get their mystery gas to burn. When its true identity and usefulness was realised, in an era when airships seemed one of the more promising technologies for future mass transportation, it was quickly deemed a strategic resource. The US government effectively nationalised supply, leading among other things to the Hindenburg disaster of 1937. Denied access to helium as a lifting gas for its zeppelins, Nazi Germany resorted to hydrogen. That’s right. A US government told a bunch of Nazis that their strategic assets were not for sale at any price. Such times! More recent US government actions have sparked inflation in the price of helium, after it announced that it would stop sales to private industry by 2021. Alternative supplies from the oilfields of Qatar, and new discoveries of substantial reserves elsewhere, mean that the end of US supply isn’t the doomsday scenario some might have feared.

“The irony is that helium is very, very common. Our local star produces hundreds of millions of tonnes of it every second, and it’s the second most abundant element in the universe.”

Demand for helium continues to rise, but alternatives are also becoming more popular. As a carrier in gas chromatography, hydrogen substitutes fairly easily (consult your instrument manufacturer for the low-down). To cool the superconducting magnets in MRI scanners and particle accelerators, new technologies promise to eliminate or at least greatly reduce the demand for helium. While further new helium fields will certainly be discovered, following the economics of supply demand and exploration, there is another source on the (distant) horizon. Helium is the main waste product of nuclear fusion. This power source promises so much, even if its promises are always for 40 years in the future, and this happy fact makes me wish for its commercial arrival more than ever. That, and an affordable electric car to use the juice squeezed from those fusion reactors. Fusion may be 40 years away, but that is plenty soon enough. Despite what you may have been led to believe, there is currently at least a century’s worth of proven helium reserves here on Earth. That’s getting on for three times the proven oil reserves. This reveals the third irony: shops here in the UK are still happy to inflate my party balloons with helium, or sell me a disposable tank of the stuff. Meanwhile in the USA, the country with more than half the world’s reserves, the state-inflicted shortage has led to TV news bulletins featuring dismayed party-throwers pulling sad faces and brandishing their limp fripperies. Save helium, by all means. It is currently non-renewable and has doubled in price over the last decade. It isn’t good to squander anything, especially a natural resource. But sometimes it is good to loosen up a little, especially during party season. Happy new year.

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National Helium Shortage Impacts Balloon Prices

Flower and party shops in Eugene said that shortage has caused some of them to increase prices and limit quantities of balloons.

f you’re looking to get balloons for your New Year’s Eve celebrations, don’t be surprised when you see that just like the balloons, prices are rising. That’s because of a national helium shortage, and here in Eugene. At the flower shop “Rhythm and Blooms,” their prices have almost doubled from $3 to now $5 per balloon. They’re also having to limit customers to three balloons per person. Toviana Jackson with Dandelions Flowers and Gifts said this could be a growing trend. “I think there is definitely a shift towards it becoming more scarce, which is, like I said, very hard because they’re such a festive part of what we do,” Jackson said. If you need balloons, stores recommend you call a couple days ahead of time to beat the last-minute rush and make sure your favorite shop has enough helium.

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Super-solid Helium State Confirmed In Beautiful Experiment


Computer artwork of the nucleus of a helium atom, or an alpha particle given off during radioactive decay. The nucleus consists of two positively charged protons (red) and two neutral neutrons (green) surrounded by a quantum cloud of gluons, a type of subatomic particle.

Super-solid found by comparing materials that can and cannot be super-solids.

In recent months, I’ve mentioned super-solids a couple of times, which is a bit unusual for something we haven’t been sure actually exists. However, a recent paper seems to offer some quite strong confirmation that super-solids are real. That means it is time to delve into the weird and wonderful world of low-temperature helium.
Helium is, without a doubt, the Universe’s weirdest material, beating out molecular hydrogen by a rather long nose. The key to helium’s strangeness is that it is normally a boson: a helium-4 atom consists of two protons, two neutrons, and two electrons, which sums to an even number, making a composite boson.

Helium is confusing

What does all that mean? It means that when cold enough, a group of helium atoms can enter the same quantum state. Even though they are spread out over a whole vessel, they all know something about the condition of their distant neighbors. This enables the helium atoms to flow without resistance, a state called a superfluidity. It’s good company among other weird and wonderful properties of helium. There is another type of helium that only has a single neutron (so two protons, one neutron, and two electrons), which means that it is not a composite boson. Instead, it is a fermion. When cold, these helium atoms cannot enter the same quantum state, so they don’t become superfluid. But, cool them enough, and two helium atoms can pair up to create a composite boson. At that very low temperature, superfluidity also emerges in helium-3. Neither helium-3 nor helium-4 can become solids at atmospheric pressure. Instead, they become solids at 20-40 atmospheres. As a solid, at the right temperature, there are predictions that helium-4 can enter the super-solid state, while helium-3, which is not a boson, will not. The problem is that the super-solid is also very hard to detect. It hides among other changes to the elastic properties of solid helium.

What is a super-solid?

A super-solid makes its presence known by flowing without resistance. However, what does it mean to say that a solid flows? When helium (either type) becomes a solid, it crystalizes. That means that all the atoms hold themselves in a fixed arrangement with each other—to give one example, atoms can line up so that they’re at the corners of a cube. As solids form, however, some positions that should have atoms do not. Others are out of position. When pressure is applied, atoms can move into these vacant positions, creating new vacant positions. As the atoms shuffle along, the solid flows. To flow, the atoms have to have sufficient energy to leave their current location before they can move to new locations. As the temperature goes down, atoms have less energy and can no longer move. That means that the rate of flow should decrease with temperature. If a material is in a super-solid state, however, then atoms can move from hole to hole because the quantum properties of the superfluid state tell the atoms where the holes are (so to speak) and allow them to move. These quantum effects get stronger with reduced temperature, so the rate of flow increases with decreasing temperature. Increasing flow with reduced temperature has been observed in Helium-4. Unfortunately, it was not quite the smoking gun that the researchers were looking for, because the elastic properties of the solid also play a role. As the temperature decreases, there is competition between reduced movement of the atoms because they have less energy and increased movement because the solid as a whole is more able to transmit any applied force to a sensor. Maybe the increased flow was actually a change in elastic properties?

Helium-3 to the rescue

To make the case for super-solidity, researchers turned to a form of helium that does not turn into a super-solid: helium-3.

The researchers repeated their experiments with solid helium-3 and observed that the rate of flow decreased with decreasing temperature, exactly as expected for a normal solid. And, because the elastic properties of helium-3 are nearly identical to that of helium-4, the researchers were able to eliminate that as an effect. Indeed, the researchers were able to distinguish the elastic motion of the solid and the flow of the solid via atomic motion between vacancies. They showed that flow proceeds quite differently for helium-4 compared to helium-3. Then came the surprise. At the lowest temperatures, the flow rate of helium-3 stopped decreasing. It didn’t exhibit super-solid properties, but it also stopped behaving like a normal solid. If you recall from above, helium-3 can become a superfluid at very low temperatures, because the individual atoms can pair up to create bosons. It should also be possible for this to occur for solid helium-3. The researchers were not at a low-enough temperature to expect a helium-3 super-solid. But the temperature was low enough that maybe, just maybe, some pairing was occurring, which was allowing some super-solid properties to start to become apparent. That last conclusion is a bit speculative in my opinion. However, the contrast between the behavior of helium-3 and helium-4 is quite stark. That alone makes the case for the existence of the super-solid state much stronger.

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Focus: A Home For Helium Inside Earth


Hot helium mystery. Ancient helium can emerge from the ground along with lava (here from Kilauea Crater in Hawaii). Computational studies now show that the helium source could be the compound FeO2He in rocks close to the Earth’s core.

Computations predict the existence of a compound that could store the primordial helium that is known to be present somewhere inside the Earth.

Primordial helium—a remnant of the early Solar System—emanates from the ground at sites of lava plumes like those found in Hawaii, Iceland, and the Galapagos. But the source of this helium deep inside the Earth remains unknown. Now researchers predict the existence of a helium-bearing compound, FeO2HeFeO2He, that could serve to store this enigmatic element. Their calculations indicate that the compound is stable at temperatures and pressures consistent with those found at the bottom of the Earth’s mantle—the mostly-solid layer between the crust and the molten outer core. If verified, the results would support the science behind using helium to trace the age and history of cosmological bodies, since other similar planets should contain the same material. After hydrogen, helium is the most abundant element in the Universe, and on Earth, there are two places to find it. Helium is continuously produced through radioactive decays in the crust, and it is also found in lava and gas plumes originating from the mantle. This mantle helium bears signatures showing that it was present when the Earth formed. Researchers assume that it must exist somewhere in the Earth in solid form; otherwise it would have escaped long ago, thanks to helium’s low density. However, helium-bearing rocks are rare—the inert element has limited capabilities to form compounds with other elements. And so far, such compounds are absent from measurements and predictions of rocks, leaving the hypothesis unconfirmed. Yanming Ma of Jilin University in China and his colleagues set out to solve this conundrum by computationally searching for minerals containing iron and magnesium that might react with helium. Iron and magnesium are good starting points for such an investigation, as the elements are both abundant inside the Earth, says team member Changfeng Chen of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The team used a crystal structure search algorithm called CALYPSO—developed by Ma’s group—that finds compound candidates by calculating their energies. When the presence of helium in a candidate compound lowers the energy compared with the helium-free version, the helium-containing compound is considered “favorable,” and the algorithm spits out a proposed crystal. The algorithm’s search turned up empty-handed for magnesium-based compounds. But the team found one potential iron-based compound that fit their criteria—FeO2HeFeO2He. The team’s calculations show that FeO2HeFeO2He forms a stable structure at temperatures between 3000 and 5000 K and at pressures ranging from 135 to 300 gigapascals (GPa), conditions that correspond to those found at the core-mantle boundary. The team also carried out simulations of FeO2HeFeO2He at a temperature of 3000 K and a pressure of 135 GPa to find the material’s acoustic properties. They found that sound waves move through the compound at speeds equivalent to those obtained in seismic-wave measurements of the core-mantle boundary, indicating that the material’s properties are consistent with observations of this region. Recent synthesis experiments also point to FeO2HeFeO2He being a strong contender for housing primordial helium. Both FeO2FeO2 and the hydrogen-containing compounds FeO2HxFeO2Hx have been formed in laboratory settings at the temperatures and pressures found in the lower regions of the mantle. Chen says that the successful creation of those materials indicates that researchers could—relatively quickly and easily—confirm in the lab hat FeO2HeFeO2He is stable in deep Earth conditions. Helium-bearing compounds have, until very recently, been considered unlikely to exist under the physical conditions on or inside the Earth, Chen says, but in his opinion, his team’s new predictions change that view. Chen suggests that primordial helium reacted with FeO2FeO2 back when the Earth was new, forming a solid material. The compound is sufficiently heavy that it would only rise to the surface through so-called mantle plumes, which are columns of hot, solid rock that move up to the crust. When FeO2HeFeO2He nears the surface and experiences a drop in temperature and pressure, it should destabilize and release helium gas. If this result is correct, it could solve the problem of where and how primordial helium is stored, says Matt Jackson, a geochemist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Jackson studies the chemical compositions of lava plumes and has found signatures of primordial helium. “This is an exciting result,” he says, but he cautions that the predictions need to be tested with laboratory experiments. Ronald Cohen, a geophysicist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC, agrees. He and others thought that primordial helium was most likely stored as impurities in mantle minerals, so the prediction of a helium-containing compound is a surprise, he says.

This research is published in Physical Review Letters.

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Diepenbrock Explains National Helium Settlement

Earlier this year, Seward County settled a tax appeal lawsuit by one of the county’s largest taxpayers. The taxpayer in the lawsuit, National Helium Corporation, had constructed a new plant in 2015, and according to Seward County Counsel Dan Diepenbrock, the new plant was appraised for $177 million. However, Tuesday, Diepenbrock said National Helium claimed that new towers constructed with the plant were equipment and under Kansas law tax exempt, and this would make 90 percent of the plant tax exempt. “That’s been the big battle,” he said. “We said ‘No it’s the other way around. You can’t tell me that tower that’s five stories high is the same as a refrigerator. That’s part of the real estate, so it should be taxed as part of the real estate.’”Diepenbrock said there were millions of dollars at stake with the lawsuit. “We were set to go to final hearing in September, but we had a mediation in June,” he said. “We ended up settling the case sometime in July. We agreed on a value of the plant.” The National Helium plant was finished and put into production in mid-2015, and in 2016, the plant was first put on the county’s tax rolls. Diepenbrock said the lawsuit was an expected move on the company’s part. “We knew the battle was coming, and we knew they were going to protest and appeal,” he said. Diepenbrock said in 2016, National Helium’s tax bill was nearly $5.88 million, but because of the claim that 90 percent of the plant was exempt, company officials claimed only 10 percent of that total was due. “We’re litigating the case as we go. 2017 comes along,” he said. “They paid this, yet they appealed. They’re looking to win the appeal and get that money refunded. 2017 comes along. Their tax bill is a little higher. It’s $6.1 million. They paid the first half, which is due in December of 2017. When May of 2018 came along, they decided not to pay that second half because we were in litigation.” Diepenbrock said the case was scheduled to go to trial in September, and National Helium officials were still opting to go to court to see what would happen. The case, though, would be settled in July. Diepenbrock said before the settlement was reached, the company was paying $6 million in taxes, and in 2016, that was what was paid. The next year, though, they would only pay the first half of that amount, $3 million, making for $9 million between 2016 and 2017. “The way we settled the case, their tax that they owed was going to be about $3.55 million, I believe,” he said. Diepenbrock said under the settlement, National Helium would pay about $7 million, but because $9 million had already been paid, the county would owe a $2 million refund. He added based upon the settlement, the county agreed to a lower assessed value because of several opinions from the Kansas Board of Tax Appeals that would have gone against the county. “There’s a nitrogen plant in Montgomery County,” he said. “There’s another type of plant similar to this in other places. The Board of Tax Appeals opinions, they’ve been getting a little better for counties, but we were looking at a risk. I told the county commissioners when this all started that, even though the Board of Tax Appeals had been ruling against counties, I thought in the end we were going to win, but we would have to take it all the way to the Supreme Court.” Diepenbrock also warned commissioners they would be in the case for a long haul, and refunds would likely build up should National Helium win. Still, he was confident the county would win. “We would probably lose at the Board of Tax Appeals, and we’d have to take it to the Court of Appeals,” he said. “If we could get the Supreme Court to take the case, if we’d still lost at the Court of Appeals, I was convinced that we would ultimately win. I was convinced that an appellate court, including the Supreme Court, would look at those five story towers and say, ‘No, it’s not like a refrigerator or an air conditioner. It’s part of the real estate.’ We were dug in for the long haul, but knowing that there was the risk, we had the mediation in June and ultimately settled the case.” The refund the county now owes under the settlement is $3.101 million, but Diepenbrock said National Helium agreed to not require the county to simply write a check for that amount. “We could set that off over four years,” he said. “Over the next several years, they are going to pay, I think it’s about $3.52 million in tax, and for the next four years, we will set off $775,367 against the $3.52 million. We don’t have to cough up the money essentially, and the college doesn’t have to send money back and the school district doesn’t have to send money back.” Diepenbrock said because both county and National Helium officials did not want to keep litigating the case every year, the agreement extends through 2023.

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