April 26, 2013

"The Federal Helium Program — leftover from the age of zeppelins..."

"... and an infamous symbol of Washington’s inability to cut what it no longer needs — will be terminated. Unless it isn’t."

65 comments:

wyo sis said...

All those balloons. Think of the children!

Matthew Sablan said...

Oh, the humanity.

Strelnikov said...

Does this mean that the surviving members will never re-unite for a tour?

EMD said...

I am now going to throw my hat into the ring for 2016. I do not have a party affiliation. I will be known only as "Hatchet Man." I will carry an actual hatchet with me on the campaign trail. I will also speak in the third person. I may also wear a mask. My message is simple:

"If you vote for Hatchet Man, Hatchet Man will prune the wild growths of government excess and rescue the people from the twisted tendrils of an oppressively invasive vile weed rooted in Washington, District of Columbia."

I will run for a singular four-year term, and thus not be distracted from my mission by the corrupting electricity of re-election.

Matthew Sablan said...

Honestly though, there -won't- be a non-government alternative until the government one is axed. There may be shortages, and it will suck. But, rip the bandaid off.

Tibore said...

Well, speaking seriously, physicists need helium for their equipment. So do doctors & hospitals, for MRI machines and the like.

But that said, I'd rather the government get out of the helium business too. After all, they're generating all that free hot air they can replace it with. ;)

Tibore said...

"I am now going to throw my hat into the ring for 2016... I will also speak in the third person. I may also wear a mask."

It'll only be funny if it's a luchador mask.

Aridog said...

Shortage anticipated? Whoa. How about government sells [or gives away if necessary] the helium operation to a private investor, lock stock and barrel.

Presto - no shortages.

Big Mike said...

Along with helium, we still have subsidies for mohair (at last check Sam Donaldson has received on the order of $200K as an alleged sheep farmer) and the National Board of Tea Tasters, which neither Dick Nixon nor Harry Reid were ever able to eliminate.

Useless agencies, bad legislation, subsidies that long since outlived their usefulness, all live forever in the United States of America.

jacksonjay said...


Not if Hank "Guam" Johnson has anything to say about it!

creeley23 said...

Glass half-full, this stuff is good news. After we're finally forced to cut, we're going to discover a vast amount of waste that can stopped with a stroke of a pen.

The real headache ahead is unemployment.

Mitchell the Bat said...

Any speech in favor of maintaining the helium reserve should be done in a funny voice.

ndspinelli said...

Without helium we cannot have Alvin and The Chipmunks.

Peter said...

A case can be made for maintaining a strategic reserve of helium. Not all of it goes into party balloons; it's also needed for MRI machines and for science.

The government owns a large strategic reserve, but it also rapidly dwindling. Government should limit who may buy it and for what purpose so as to assure a supply for essential uses.

If private suppliers can find new sources then let them sell it for whatever the market will bear.

Methadras said...

Considering there is going to be a shortage of Helium in the coming years, I wonder if this will be used as an excuse to continue the program. FOR HELIUM JUSTICE!!!

MadisonMan said...

The real headache ahead is unemployment.

Oh come on. Helium Miners will be in great demand.

Why is a Republican from central Washington behind the push to save the Federal Helium dinosaur? Because a big DOE job-supplier is in his District.

It's important to cut funding, unless if affects me.

Ironclad said...

Helium wells in Texas are depleting, so this isn't a total joke, since He is used a lot in medical and chemical analysis. These days a lot of Helium comes from NGL extraction plants - you just supercool the overhead of the Demethanizer column and extract the Helium from the nitrogen that liquifies. Expensive to do, but Helium is not cheap.

Seeing Red said...

Vodkapundit on today's #s.

this is the best we can do?

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating. Obamanomics is when you take an economy that’s flat on its back, stick your boot firmly on its throat, then bash it on the head with a giant sack of money, and scream, “WHY WON’T YOU MAKE ANY JOBS?” When that fails, get a bigger sack.

Zach said...

There's actually a big shortage of helium right now. Prices are going up, and everything tries to work on a closed cycle to avoid any losses. The issue of Physics Today right next to me has a full page color ad on the back cover for helium liquifiers. The copy at the top reads:

Quantum Design's Advanced Technology Liquifiers (ATL) along with its innovative Helium Recovery, Storage & Purification Systems allow you to recover the helium gas currently being lost from the normal boil off and helium transfers of your cryogenic instruments.

The thing about helium recovery is that it's extremely hard to get any once it escapes into the atmosphere. Helium is famously nonreactive, so chemical processes won't help you. Basically, you have to capture helium at a natural gas well head or you'll never have another chance at it.

edutcher said...

How else do they maintain Choom's inflated opinion of himself?

Carl said...

The issue is not nearly as picayune as this asinine article suggests. In the first place, helium is essential stuff for a number of high-tech, scientific, and medical uses. I said essential, as in completely irreplaceable, at least with present or foreseeable technology.

Second, it is a weirdly irreplaceable resource. When your liquid He boils off, it makes its way to the top of the atmosphere and drifts off into interplanetary space, because the Earth's gravity is too weak to hold it. It's gone for good. You will never be able to recycle it, the way you might think of recycling iron from scrap heaps, or even reconstituting oil from the CO2 and H2O in the atmosphere after it gets burnt.

Third, the only conceivable source is the underground decay of uranium and thorium, which verrrry slowly produce helium over millions of years, particle by particle. There is no way to hurry the process up, and the supply is obviously finite and decreasing remorselessly every year.

Fourth, the economics are stupid, because the 1990s Federal law said to sell off the reserve as fast as possible, so the Federal government has been dumping He at far less than the cost to actually supply it for years and years. Not surprisingly, all these wrong economic signals have built up a whole economic structure built on them -- built on sand, so that once those signals reset to reality, you are going to have significant disruption.

That's the difficult issue. There may be broad agreement that economic reality should take over, and the signals reset, but how and when to do that is a matter of debate, as well it should be, and for the admittedly narrow segments of tech for which this is relevant, hardly trivial. It is by no means something Senators and Representatives shouldn't be wasting their time upon. The Post could do its readers a better favor by explaining why this happened, and the strangely unique nature of helium, than by phoning in a cheap mindless story about how government programs live forever ha ha ha.

But that's modern journalism. It has decayed to formula so absurdly that I wonder whether someone with an actual original thought or story line could survive. I suppose it is conservatism born of their shrinking bottom line. Reminds me of Hollywood, similar threatened by cable and the Internet, which can only make Spiderman 8 and Star Trek: The Fourth Reboot because is timidity won't allow for any bolder essay.

rhhardin said...

This is the age of hydrogen.

rhhardin said...

Alvin and the Chipmunks were just a tape speedup with slow talking, as you could verify with a 3-3/4 and 7-1/2 inch per second tape recorder.

rhhardin said...

There should be a title ix program for shelium.

rhhardin said...

We can mine helium from the sun.

Jeff Teal said...

For those who think that the He projecr is such a joke,please be aware that certain nuclear research depends on the use of He-3 which is even rarer than He-4.Frankly certain materials should be federally managed due to their exotic essential and explosive nature.Think about it.

Jeff Teal said...

By the way probablynour best bet for large scale He mining is Saturn.Which ain't gonna be cheap.

Zach said...

The thing that makes helium so irreplaceable is that it liquifies at the lowest temperature of any gas. The helium atoms are so unreactive that any kind of excess energy will cause the liquid to evaporate. It won't even form a solid at atmospheric pressure -- you have to pressurize it. So if you want to look at things at liquid temperatures, you've got helium and that's it. It's very common to see papers where things are measured at 4 Kelvin -- that's because that's the boiling point of liquid helium. Liquid hydrogen boils at 33 Kelvin, and liquid nitrogen boils at 77 Kelvin.

Because the reactivity of a chemical increases greatly when you increase the concentration, lots of liquid gases are not well suited for cooling off other things -- liquid hydrogen is used for rocket fuel! If you don't use liquid helium, you're probably going to use liquid nitrogen, and that's just nowhere near as cold -- 77 Kelvin is more than 10 times as hot, and there are lots of cryogenic processes that only occur at much lower temperatures.

Leland said...

I wonder if it wouldn't be better to sell the reserve rather than selling off small distributions?

EMD said...

Hatchet Man is willing to ruin future children's birthday parties to ensure the financial security of this country!

Paul Zrimsek said...

Generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when the rise of the balloons began to slow and our budget began to heal.

Smilin' Jack said...

Only scientifically and industrially advanced countries, like China, Japan, and some of Europe, require helium for research and production. Here in America, as we slide merrily along toward third-world status, everything we need to know is in the Bible, and all we need to produce is more diversity.

Broomhandle said...



Strelnikov said...
Does this mean that the surviving members will never re-unite for a tour?


The funniest thing I will hear/read today. Thank you.

James Pawlak said...

You might walk from your legal ivory tower to the Physics and engineering faculty and get some real information about Helium.


Helium is used in cryogenics. Helium is used in deep-sea breathing systems. Helium is used to cool superconducting magnets. Scientists can also use helium in helium dating which can tell the age of different things that have died as long as they had helium in them. Helium is used for providing lift in airships. Helium is also used as a protective gas for many industrial uses.

El Pollo Real said...

Helium is a misnomer. It was named before it was isolated on earth and when it was assumed to be metallic. It should be called helion. Whatever it goes by, without He, much of modern medicine and industry would end in this country.

Cedarford said...

Carl explained the problem very well.
This isn't something like the government mohair wool program.

Not is it a very good fit for "letting the Freedom Lovers! of the Free Market sell it for whatever consumers want it for".
Because in this rare case, there are real concerns that this is like sperm whales...a finite supply and once largely pissed away on party balloons and blimps and once depleted we can't just can count on miracle new technology to find us more helium.

The sperm whale dilemma was something we had to resolve by getting away from the "Free Market with Free Trade for Freedom LOvers" - or we would have driven them to extinction. Had it been left to pure market forces, .better whale killing ships would have hunted down the harder to find whales until the various species of whales were gone or endangered - no limitless supply of sperm whales existed.

This is a case where a precious element that is found in only a few natural gas fields, fields being depleted, no other source available on Earth. Critical for use in high tech equipment. So it best be regulated by law and uses limited to critical equipment. There is no other supply of it that can be practically extracted. There is no "substitute element" for many of those critical uses. And it is a supply that needs to be safeguarded for future generations. Not put on the market and lost in a decade or so.

Cedarford said...

Carl explained the problem very well.
This isn't something like the government mohair wool program.

Not is it a very good fit for "letting the Freedom Lovers! of the Free Market sell it for whatever consumers want it for".
Because in this rare case, there are real concerns that this is like sperm whales...a finite supply and once largely pissed away on party balloons and blimps and once depleted we can't just can count on miracle new technology to find us more helium.

The sperm whale dilemma was something we had to resolve by getting away from the "Free Market with Free Trade for Freedom LOvers" - or we would have driven them to extinction. Had it been left to pure market forces, .better whale killing ships would have hunted down the harder to find whales until the various species of whales were gone or endangered - no limitless supply of sperm whales existed.

This is a case where a precious element that is found in only a few natural gas fields, fields being depleted, no other source available on Earth. Critical for use in high tech equipment. So it best be regulated by law and uses limited to critical equipment. There is no other supply of it that can be practically extracted. There is no "substitute element" for many of those critical uses. And it is a supply that needs to be safeguarded for future generations. Not put on the market and lost in a decade or so.

Aaron said...

Helium may be important and a scarce resource, which is why the market should supply it and not the government. Market prices conserve truly scarce resources, signal when to find more of a resource or to create an alternative to a resource.

Unless its needed for national defense, then do not even need a strategic reserve.

Let the price go up, and many vendors will be more than happy to find ways to supply it.

Michael said...

Here is an idea. Instead of the helium business just evaporating because the government exits, how about the government selling the helium business to a group that will contine to provide the supply at market prices.

Michael said...

Here is an idea. Instead of the helium business just evaporating because the government exits, how about the government selling the helium business to a group that will contine to provide the supply at market prices.

Geoff Matthews said...

Couldn't they just sell it instead?
Crown corporations get sold in Canada, why not this? High tech companies need helium for some of their manufacturing needs.

Somebody said...

Aaron is right. A "shortage" just means the price is being artificially kept too low.

It's the same old story: once the government gets involved it creates vested interests who will be hurt when the subsidy stops. But it sounds like everyone who buys helium had plenty of warning this was coming.

Cedarford said...

Aaron said...
Helium may be important and a scarce resource, which is why the market should supply it and not the government. Market prices conserve truly scarce resources, signal when to find more of a resource or to create an alternative to a resource.

Unless its needed for national defense, then do not even need a strategic reserve.

Let the price go up, and many vendors will be more than happy to find ways to supply it.

===================
I don't think you understand the basic facts, Aaron.

John said...

Why in the world do we even allow one party balloon to be filled with something so critical? "Whatever it goes by, without He, much of modern medicine and industry would end in this country." Seems irresponsible to me.

Stephen A. Meigs said...

Helium is precious, e.g., it liquifies at a lower temperature than anything else, making it essential for studying low temperatures, superconductivity, etc. And superconductivity is very important in creating powerful magnetic fields, etc. Moreover, unlike natural gas, petroleum and coal, it has no substitute. Once it gets into atmosphere, it's gone forever, because the Earth's gravity is too weak to keep it from rapidly escaping into outer space. I'd say it's pretty clear that wise governments--one's that aren't run by ignorance or short-sightedness--should be hoarding the stuff, because private firms or the market or whatever you call it tend to only care about the short term, and in the short term, it is fairly abundant because it is a byproduct of natural gas production in fields containing much of it (and apparently because our government is stupidly selling its reserves). Once the natural gas fields containing helium are gone, your best option I'm guessing is probably to mine Jupiter--kind of expensive.

Astro said...

You'd think with the value Helium has, it could be privatized and allowed to , ahh, carry it's own weight.

Somebody said...

"private firms or the market or whatever you call it tend to only care about the short term"

Is that really true? If people know the supply is running low, they'll have an incentive to hoard hoping to cash in later.

Maybe there is good reason for some sort of "strategic rserve." But It all sounds me like a rationalization for keeping the status quo.

Gene said...

Once the government gives something away it can never take it back again. I remember during the last election able bodied and husky Obama supporters were threatening to "riot" if Romney won and they lost their food stamps.

Science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle has recently been complaining on his blog that the FAA is going to furlough flight controllers and thus cause huge delays at airports but the federal "bunny inspector" program is unimpaired.

Apparently the federal government sends out inspectors to make sure that magicians who pull rabbits out of hats have licenses for putting a rabbit on "public display." Also they make sure no one sells rabbits for food without a federal license.

There is nothing the government doesn't want to tax, regulate and control. Now that it has made carbon dioxide a taxable item, oxygen will be next. Here in California, if you have an air rifle, you can't pump your own air into it. You have to go to a licensed air compressor station (and if I'm not mistaken also pay an annual fee for the air). I just discovered I can't walk down the street carrying my old recurve hunting bow. Pretty soon it will be illegal even to carry a picture of a bow, as it is with photos of guns in some schools.

Cedarford said...

Somebody said...
"private firms or the market or whatever you call it tend to only care about the short term"

Is that really true? If people know the supply is running low, they'll have an incentive to hoard hoping to cash in later.

===========================
Privatization will have no incentive to pay for it, then pay interest on loans or the cash value of a non-performing asset that ideally should be conserved and stored for future generations. No private firm will buy an asset and just sit on it for 80-300 years.

That is not how it works. You want to come in, sell the acquired asset as soon as possible, realize the profit. When it gets scarcer and higher in price, soon it rises enough that you want to sell all of it - because why save any of it past when shareholders want max rturn and you want to get rich as possible selling every scrap before you die. You aren't concerned at all about the needs of people 80-300 years later. And when the asset is gone, tough. You tell yourself that "a substitute will be found" or "who really needs sperm whales anyhow"/
You then just move your private firm(s) into a new line of biz.

And sometimes the government is culpable in catering to the market, and not safeguarding an irreplacable asset.
In the name of looming privatization, starting in the Reagan Era - the helium reserves were sold off to favored businesses cheaper than what the material was worth.

Jeff Teal said...

For many people ,even on this blog there is a presumption that more can be produced.This is a built in asumption of the law of supply and demand that may very well not be true in this case.As well does anyone actually think it is a good idea to have a private market in a commodity with a very high strategic value like say -plutonium.Think about the implications.Please no knee jerk reactions.

Somebody said...

Still not convinced "that's not how things work." I don't know anything about helium but it sounds more like oil & gas than the whales. There's a difference between whales in the ocean, which aren't owned by anyone and are subject to "tragedy of the commons" depletion, and things like minerals that are private property even in the ground.

the price of helium won't stay low until suddenly it's gone, unless the government keeps it there. People may not always be rational but they aren't stupid either. They will realize that the price tomorrow will go up more than the cost of holding the asset one more day.

Phil 3:14 said...

I fear Health Care will be Helium in 20 years.

Jeff Teal said...

All minerals are not the same.Some like silica are immensely abundant and some like diamonds and gold are rare.Helium and heavy water are more like gold and diamonds.Diamonds and heavy water are naturally regenerated -eventually-over geologic time spans.Non reactive materials like gold and helium only slowly regenerate by radioactive decay.In short helium is really rare.But its price does not reflect it's rarity
It is not rare on the interstellar and solar scales but the cost of it's capture is really high.

Mitch H. said...

I've encountered articles claiming that the supply has been privatized, that it was a catastrophe and failure of markets, and this article makes me think I've been lied to. Comprehensively. And makes me want to see both writers and politicians responsible hung by their heels by their office doors.

El Pollo Real said...

Phil 3:14 said...
I fear Health Care will be Helium in 20 years.

Insofar as truly valuable diagnostics like MRI critically depend on liquid helium, and barring some breakthrough in superconductivity which obviates its utility, you may be right: both gone sky-high.

Mitch H. said...

And I see that the thread is already full of corrupted morons who let the panic-mongers swing them into supporting their corrupt lines of argument. The only reason there's a "shortage" is because some idiot decided to sell off reserves at an artificially low government-set price instead of properly auctioning off the government-owned reserves. Which is to say, politicians decided to exert their control by destroying markets instead of enabling them. Assholes, all.

Frankly, the argument that there isn't a source of helium once the government supply is depleted is the worst kind of "somebody told me it, thus it's unalterable fact" scientism horseshit. The planet is venting helium, the same way it has been venting since the ball of nickel-iron was formed some four-and-a-half billion years ago. The only difference is that the US federal government has aggregated over the last eighty years or so a supply of captured helium which is currently causing market distortions, since the managers have no incentive to sell at reasonable market values, thus stymieing the profitable capture of further helium from the same sources whence came the extant supply.

Assholes.

Stephen A. Meigs said...

I read a little more about helium. Apparently it's average residence time in the atmosphere is about a million years, short on a geological time scale, but much longer than I had remembered (from a book report I did in the sixth grade on Asimov's book about the nobel gases). Air is six parts per million helium by volume, and so better than mining Jupiter would be to liquify the non-helium portion of air to get helium, though supposedly according to Cornell physicist Robert Richardson, obtaining He in this manner would make helium about 10,000 times more expensive than what it costs to extract it from natural gas.

Eponym said...

The following comment from the referenced page is exactly on point:

The use of helium in party balloons is a crime against science. And the sale of our reserves to private or foreign concerns is a threat to American security. Once that stuff is gone, it really IS gone forever and ever, at least from the perspective of earth dwellers. And it is VERY valuable, indeed essential, for scientific experimentation, the source of our progress in many fields.

You may think this odd given that, except for hydrogen, helium is the second-most plentiful substance in the universe, but that's the way it is. It's sort of like the "Water, water everywhere" thing that dehydrated sailors bemoan. But there's nothing for helium that corresponds to desalinization, or even the electrolysis of water to obtain oxygen or hydrogen. There are no compounds that contain helium from which it might be extracted, even at whatever expense we would be willing to pay. There's just no such thing.

And the export of helium must be TIGHTLY controlled, and ownership of our reserves, the only such reserves on earth, must be in the hands of the American government and no private entity, foreign or domestic. This is one of those things that government is for. This is not something for which private profit should be a consideration at all.

This is a substance that we really must stop wasting and must control exclusively for American national interests and those we as a nation deem worthwhile. Profit is not one of those interests. Congress should act quickly and take these reserves back by eminent domain, and compensate the Israelis fairly to reimburse whatever they may have invested to obtain any part of our reserves.

People, this is a matter of genuinely surpassing importance to America, and it should not be trivialized, whether by dogmatic congressmen or pundits in the press. We must act RIGHT NOW.

Aaron said...

People pay more for an MRI than for a helium balloon for the kids. Thus, if the market price were allowed, no one would buy helium balloons, just like kids don't play with solid platinum toy cars. The market is a very, very good rationer of scarce goods.

Aaron said...

OMG, the furriners will buy the Helium...and then they won't share it with us. They will make MRI machines and never, ever sell it to America, the top market in the world for everything.

So...you guys apparently are happy if China did this with rare earth metals?

I guess so!!!!

Aaron said...

And these claims...like tech companies cannot outbid Johnny who wants a balloon!!!

You want to buy cobalt to make cell phones? Mined in some crazy country in Africa?

NO. Johnny outbid you because he wants a toy car made of cobalt.

Come on, pull the other one.

If its a scare, non-renewable resource, then the market price should be astronomical.

Aaron said...

Meanwhile, no one here who claims that He is being wasted and is actually is extremely valuable and under priced is starting up a He hedge fund to price balloons out of the market and making a killing. (and at the same time, doing good for society!)

Aridog said...

Mitch H. said...

And I see that the thread is already full of corrupted morons...

Mitch, I don't think this thread has very many morons [compared to many many other threads of verbose ad hominem] , but I do understand your frustrations. Actually this thread has served a good purpose for at least one of us...me. I hereby withdraw my flippant remark about privatizing He at 11:57 AM yesterday. It was ignorant. One reason I visit here is to have my mind changed or my opinions modified when appropriate.

I checked your profile and it seems your occupation is similar to my last one in the military. At times I wanted to just throttle otherwise good people. I was wrong as often as right. I worship at the altar of the KISS principle, but at times there are issues and things that are not simple. I think He is discussed here is one of those things. I should have known that from my early years in chemistry.

While I generally agree that a free market can ration scarce minerals well, it can also squander them in pursuit of political influence and short term profit. An example: I am highly suspicious of Jeffery Immelt, CEO of GE, being such a close White House advisor. GE pays little or no taxes and I'd wonder why that is....not being familiar with their books.

I was born at the beginning of WWII and grew up then and during the Korean War, and I recall rationing and government controls on many things, some mundane...and I have the original ration stamps my family didn't use up, essentially doing their little part in supporting a conservation effort. However, overall I am suspicious of *conservation* organizations who fund raise more than protect anything...and almost always support big government largess.

so at this point let me just say I am now on the fence about Helium and want to know more without political hyperbole. For example, I don't understand the sanity in selling He below market prices if such as established privately. I tend to believe you follow the omney and find the frauds...and I suspect no less in this case.

I am no longer confident we as a nation can reestablish a balance of interests becasue we spedn so much time on polemics and so little on fact sharing and honest debate.

El Pollo Real said...

If its a scare, non-renewable resource, then the market price should be astronomical.

There used to be a lot of copper (and silver) circulating in this country for pennies on the dollar. Now even the sham copper-plated pennies are getting too expensive.

I don't believe for a second you know the first thing about scarce commodities and market pricing.

El Pollo Real said...

BTW, one reason ammo is getting scarce is because of the brass content of the shells. It's made of the same stuff our pennies used to be made of.

Gresham's Law