Getting more of it is pretty easy really

Timothy Taylor has one of his – as usual – excellent pieces rounding up the economics of a certain situation. This time it’s on helium and there’s two little points that need to be added to it.

Start here. Read that and then come back.

The two things. Firstly:

Helium is an exhaustible natural resource

No, it isn’t.

It’s actually – to within a reasonable definition at least – the only element which isn’t exhaustible. We can only use however many copper atoms are on the planet. Despite human use of iron starting, so some say, with meteoric supplies that addition’s not a useful one compared with usage. However, helium truly is different.

The Earth’s original endowment long ago – like billions of years ago – boiled off into space. That we still have some means that it’s being generated, somehow and somewhere. Fortunately we know how and where too. The Earth’s endowments of uranium and thorium (it can get a little complex, as thorium can be created as a result of the radioactive decay of uranium – ah, no, looking it up that’s the wrong way around isn’t it?) can and do end up decaying, often enough, into helium. There’s a lot of U and Th around as well.

Helium is constantly and continuously generated.

Sure, we can get into problems if our usage is higher than generation and so on but we’re here in something much, much, closer to the management of a commons and outgrowing regenerative capacity than we are the more usual thoughts on mineral exhaustibility. Something which it’s important to note. Garrett Hardin might be appropriate here, possibly Elinor Ostrom, rather than the ponderings of the Peak Oil (yes, I really have seen “Peak Helium” articles) crowd.

As it happens some to much of that generated helium migrates through rock and ends up being captured in the same sort of salt domes etc which collect natural gas for us. Thus some to much natural gas contains helium:

Helium is trapped in certain (not all) natural gas fields,

Well, that’s actually a matter of opinion. It depends what you’re calling helium really. 100 parts per million? 1 ppm? Given that the atmosphere itself contains at least a measurable amount of He we’d be on safer ground insisting that only some natural gas deposits contain an economic amount of helium rather than any at all.

On to the second:

They suggested that helium is unique even in comparison with other ECEs, because it is unlikely that any economic source of helium besides natural gas will be found, helium is often vented into the atmosphere during the production and consumption of natural gas, and natural gas production (without separation of helium) and consumption is likely to continue to increase. Since then, natural gas production and consumption in the country has increased, but that has been mostly owing to increases in the production of shale gas, which may not have any significant helium content.”

It’s that “without separation of helium” which is the problem.

Sure, we all know that shale gas has changed the energy world but what’s the other major thing that is happening with natural gas? That would be LNG, liquefied natural gas. How do you liquify a gas? You cool it of course as we can derive from Boyle’s Law. How do we make LNG? We cool it.

Which is cool if we’re looking for helium.

We can just run something similar to how we make the water of life. Ethanol and methanol liquify at different temperatures. So, to separate out one from the other from our mash tun and alcohol production we boil it all up and then have a little tap in the gas flow in a coil. Put the tap at one temperature and we get the meths to sell to the gap toothed and would be blind. At another temperature point we get the whiskey you and I drink because we’re important and lovely people.

Helium liquefies at 4 degrees Kelvin. Natural gas at about 110 degrees Kelvin. And how about that, eh? In our process of making LNG we’ve just separated the He out from the CH4, haven’t we? For the He is still floating around as a gas as we pipe the methane (and propane, butane etc) off to stick into a ship. Sure, there’s still extra work to be done, we’ve got to cool again to get liquid He and all that but our major and horrible cost, having to cool down vast volumes of natural gas to get to 1%, 0.1%, 0.01%, He content has already been done for us.

Stick the right doohickey on the side of our LNG plants – the ones we’re throwing up all around the world at present – and we’ve cheap and abundant helium.

This is akin to the gallium industry. I always giggle when people tell me there’s not enough of it around to make advanced solar cells from – or whatever is this week’s thing to worry about. Every bauxite to alumina plant is simply swimming in gallium. More, the very process of bauxite to alumina conversion puts that gallium into solution and we already know how to make the doohickeys to extract it. For this is where we get our gallium from right now. If we want more gallium all we’ve got to do is add more doohickeys to the 90% (I exaggerate, but not much) of extant alumina plants which currently don’t have one.

Helium is indeed in natural gas, we get it out by cooling the gas. LNG means cooling natural gas. In a world moving, speedily, towards LNG we’re not going to have a shortage of helium, are we?

And that, really, is the important thing we all need to know about helium.

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In the 16th century people were profisising the collapse of civilisation because we were running out of trees to burn. Then somebody said: what about these burnable rocks I keep tripping over?