Helium Shortages And Emerging Helium Provinces

The search for new sources of helium is of paramount importance as a combination of declining production and increasing demand have made helium prices soar. This follows a century in which the United States had a near monopoly on helium reserves and U.S. production met global demand. Although most of the helium production story has taken place in the United States, there are other nations that have produced and are producing helium. Details of production and exploration in these regions are scant, however.

Helium Beyond the United States

In a 2014 issue of the journal “Minerals,” New Zealanders Steve Mohr and James Ward published “Helium Production and Possible Projections,” in which they attempted to build the history of helium production for countries other than the United States. The data they assembled comes from documents published by the U.S. Geological Survey Mineral Resources Program, which enabled them to collate the production from countries other than the United States. Helium has been produced in Canada, France, Poland, Algeria, Qatar, Russia and Australia, of which Algeria, Qatar and Russia have been the most significant. Also in 2014, a paper by V.P. Yakutseni of the All Russia Petroleum Research Exploration Institute entitled, “World Helium Resources and the Perspectives of Helium Industry Development,” reviewed helium occurrences, reserves and production and provided specific details of fields in Russia, Algeria and Poland. For Russia, most of the gases produced to date have been low in helium (0.1-0.25 percent in western Russia), and gases from the Caspian area, Arctic territories and western Siberia have been very low in helium ( less than 0.03 percent). However, discoveries made in the latter half of the 20th century in eastern Siberia contain moderate amounts of helium (0.2-0.6 percent). The fields include the Kovykta Field that is reported to have the unusual property of containing only 1.5 percent nitrogen but 0.26-0.28 percent helium. The production of helium in Algeria is from the giant Hassi R’Mel gas field, reported to have up to 0.19 percent helium, according to a 2014 report by independent consultant Richard H. Clarke, “The Global Helium Supply.” Helium has been extracted from the liquefied natural gas process since 1995 with at least two new fields being added this decade with expected reserves of around 37 million cubic meters. The world’s largest gas field is North Field in Qatar and its extension into the Iranian South Pars within the Persian/Arabian Gulf. Field start-up was in 1997 and the gas is exported as LNG. The cryogenic process used to liquefy the gas also gives an opportunity for the extraction of helium, which in the case of North Field is only present at 0.04 percent. Elsewhere, such a low concentration would not be considered economically viable, but as a secondary product to LNG production, helium extraction is commercially feasible.

Future Market Share

Mohr and Ward and Yakutseni made projections of likely future production based upon the summed reserve estimates from known producing countries plus China. Their projections are quite different.


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150 years since the discovery of helium

On 20 October 1868, Norman Lockyer discovered helium. Associate Curator of Chemistry Rupert Cole tells the story. ‘At last!’ exclaimed a weary Norman Lockyer to himself, as his fatigued eye finally accepted what it had witnessed. Looking down his spectroscope, seeing a rogue yellow line in a spectrum of light from the sun, Lockyer realised he had discovered a new element – helium. He then, according to the dramatic account of his discovery in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, ‘quitted the observatory to fetch my wife to endorse my observation’. Lockyer’s wife Winifred was an active member of the Victorian scientific world, often translating popular science books from French to English. As well as confirming her husband’s famous observations, she also accompanied him on an 1870 solar eclipse expedition to Sicily. Winifred had married Norman Lockyer – a civil servant working for the War Office – in 1858. They moved to in Wimbledon in south London and raised seven children together, but sadly she died in 1878. Lockyer published her obituary in Nature, the scientific journal he founded. In it he wrote: ‘her husband’s scientific work for the last eleven years owes whatever it may possess of merit to her constant interest, encouragement, and assistance’. Lockyer named the new element he discovered ‘helium’, after the Greek sun god Helios. It’s often considered a special discovery as the first and only element to be identified outside Earth. He used this spectroscope to make the discovery (now part of the Science Museum Group Collection).

The spectroscope combined glass prisms with a telescope to analyse the spectra – lines of colour unique to each chemical element which look like a multicoloured barcode. German scientists Gustav Robert Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen (of burner fame) pioneered this technique in 1860, known as spectroscopy. They discovered two elements by this method, the metals rubidium and caesium. While Kirchhoff and Bunsen had heated their elements under a flame to dissect their signature spectrums of light, Lockyer held his spectroscope up to a telescope which was pointed at the outer edge of the sun. The level of accuracy needed for this discovery required an extraordinary spectroscope, containing no less than seven prisms. It was made by John Browning, a London specialist in scientific instruments, who completed it just four days before Lockyer’s discovery after much delay. This beautiful instrument is one of the star exhibits of the Science Museum’s The Sun: Living with Our Star exhibition. On 18 August 1868, during a total solar eclipse observed from India, a French astronomer Pierre Janssen saw the same signature lines of colour through his spectroscope as Lockyer would two months later. The postal transit time from India to Paris meant Janssen’s letter announcing his discovery of a new element did not reach the hands of the President of the French Academy of Sciences until just a few minutes before Lockyer’s did via a French scientist. There was no priority dispute, with both scientists receiving joint credit in France and becoming friends. However, in the following years, there remained much doubt (and even mockery) over Lockyer’s discovery. Even Lockyer’s chemist collaborator in the discovery, Edward Frankland, publicly renounced his involvement in the work. The question of helium would finally be settled when in 1895 the chemist William Ramsay isolated helium gas from heating the radioactive mineral cleveite. Ramsay sent Lockyer a sample and this tube used by Ramsay is in the collection. The discovery of helium is certainly unusual in the history of science, combining both chemistry and astronomy. The history of science is not just about winners and successes. Lockyer’s announcement was made amidst other (now spurious) element discoveries by solar spectroscopy, from Coronium in 1869 (that in 1939 was found to be plain old Iron) to Occultum in 1895, put forward by two eccentric scientifically-minded occultists. Was Lockyer lucky? He was a man of many theories, many of which were highly controversial and outlandish, including his suggestion of ley lines at Stonehenge. But, rightly or wrongly, he is now remembered for his correct discovery. We do like a hero. With absolutely no bias from my curatorial remit, the message I am taking home from this episode: it takes a chemist to tidy up the notions of astronomers…


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Europe’s ‘New’ Periodic Table Predicts Which Elements Will Disappear In The Next 100 Years

A new periodic table sizes the boxes for each element based on their relative abundance. Oxygen is plentiful, but indium and helium may soon be scarce, thanks to humans’ voracious appetite for smartphones and party balloons.

Oxygen can breathe easy, but the party might soon be over for helium balloons. Those are two takeaways from a brand-new model of the periodic table of elements, debuted this week by the European Chemical Society (or EuChemS, a group representing more than 160,000 chemists in the European Union). Unlike the ubiquitous classroom version of the table, which categorizes the universe’s 118 known natural and synthetic elements with equal space for each element, EuChemS’ chart has been warped and wobbled to show the relative abundance or scarcity of 90 naturally occurring elements here on Earth. The bubbly new chart of life’s building blocks is more than a cool curiosity; according to EuChemS president David Cole-Hamilton, it’s also an important reminder of which of Earth’s elements are in danger of disappearing, thanks to human overuse. “Some of these elements, we have less than a hundred years before it’s much more difficult to get hold of them,” Cole-Hamilton told the Marketplace “Morning Report” radio show. Others, he noted, may only have a shelf life of a few decades. According to the new table, oxygen — which makes up about 21 percent of Earth’s atmosphere and is (knock on wood) allowing you to breathe right now — is the planet’s most abundant element and faces no threat of extinction. Many of the most-threatened elements, meanwhile, are being used to manufacture tech-heavy devices like computers and smartphones. Indium, for example, is a silvery metal used to create touch screens for phones and computers. According to Cole-Hamilton, the world’s indium supply is “extremely thinly spread” across the planet and could soon dry up if we continue chucking out our old devices every few years. “In the U.K. alone, 1 million smartphones are exchanged every month,” Cole-Hamilton told Marketplace. “If we use [indium] at the rate we continue to use it, the amount in the reserves is only enough for another 20 years.” Humans’ appetite for shiny new tech is not the only threat to the elements, though. Helium, the second-most abundant element in the universe, may only have a few decades left of use on Earth, thanks largely to runaway party balloons. While the helium used in MRI scanners and deep-sea diving is usually recycled, Cole-Hamilton said, helium party balloons tend to release their gassy cargo directly into the atmosphere, where it is soon lost to space. “If helium gets into the atmosphere, it can go right up to the edge of the Earth and be lost in outer space forever,” Cole-Hamilton said. “Really, we shouldn’t be putting helium into party balloons.” Cole-Hamilton added that there’s only about 10 years’ worth of helium left in Earth’s reserves, if humans don’t start changing their balloon-releasing behavior soon. 2019 marks the 150th anniversary of the periodic table, which was originally conceived by Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869. Last week, the world’s oldest known classroom version of the periodic table was discovered in a cluttered storeroom in Scotland. The chart dates to 1885.


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Earth Could Run Out Of Helium Within The Next Decade

A lack of helium has wider impacts than just balloons.

If you want to have a MRI in the future, you are going to have to give up on helium balloons. The world’s supply of helium could run out within a decade, a leading chemistry professor warns. David Cole-Hamilton told The Independent that the price of helium has surged 500 per cent over the last 15 years as scientists struggle to find more supplies, which comes from harbouring the slow radioactive alpha decay in rocks. Local scientist Michelle Dickinson told Lorna Subritzky that while a lack of balloons would disappoint children, there are wider reaching implications if we run out of helium. “Helium is a big component in scientific research. We use it in MRI scanners, so if you’ve ever got something medically wrong with you and you needed a MRI, you need helium to do that.” She says it also cools things down to -269 degrees Celsius. NASA also uses 25 per cent of the world’s helium to clean pipes in rockets. Dickinson says that helium is often found when open mining. “There have been no new sources found, even in mines.” She says that prices of helium should go up to better highlight how sparse the source is.

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Port Orange Party Store Tries To Stay Afloat During The National Helium Shortage

A few weeks ago, the store restricted the balloons per party. Now, things are starting to look up.

If you’re shopping for party balloons, you may find the prices are inflated. Effects of the helium shortage can be found here in Port Orange, including at Party City, Publix and Dollar Tree. Big corporations have other goods and services to keep them running. However, small business owners aren’t always as lucky. Lisa Taber, owner of Balloons by Beth, moved her business back in April 2018 to 3751 S. Nova Road and says the recent helium shortage has been a struggle. Since her relocation, many clients think the business has shut down. She said she would love to see her business thrive despite the recent setbacks due to the lack of helium. “Week to week it changes,” Taber said. “I don’t know what to expect.” Taber, who has been in the family business for over 30 years and only recently took over as the owner, is best known for her balloons. A few months back she would wonder if she would be able to get a helium tank every week. This made it hard to book clients, and she felt bad turning people away because of the shortage. Over the last month and a half the price of helium has tripled due to the shortage leaving her with no choice but to raise her own prices. “I can only hope the supply comes back and the prices will go back down,” Taber said. The changes in her pricing have caused some clients to turn away and she fears that could have a lasting impact for her shop. But, she also has over 250 costumes for sale and more for rent, keeping Taber optimistic. She is getting creative with her balloon arrangements and is having specials in February to offset the rising costs of her helium supply; her singing telegrams and “I love you” bouquets are options she is offering for Valentine’s Day during the shortage. The balloon columns, arches, and swags are all made without helium and offered year round. She also crafts centerpieces and bouquets. Though the shortage is nationwide, Taber said, “it’s starting to get a little better.” She no longer needs to limit the number of balloons per party, like she did three to four weeks ago. “This is all we have,” said Taber of her supply. “I have to order a new tank soon. I’m dreading it.”

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