November 16, 2013

"Is it right to waste helium on party balloons?"

"We're going to be looking back and thinking, I can't believe people just used to fill up their balloons with it, when it's so precious and unique."

21 comments:

Oso Negro said...

"I suspect the amount that is used in party balloons is quite small compared to the other main uses of it," says Dr Wothers.

"But it's just a rather trivial use of something we should be valuing a little bit more."

Yes, and the other big use is in manufacturing MRI magnets, which can be used by healthcare professionals to extend life for people who will sit around the old folks' home playing bingo, or watch Miley Cyrus twerk, or....or...buy helium filled balloons for their trivial occasions. But Cambridge scientists likely know best.

The Drill SGT said...

So let's review.

It's found in gas deposits. So until we run out of gas, we won't run out of helium.

What we have is consumption exceeding production and eating into inventory.

The exacerbating issue is that government market intervention and price setting at lower than the market price misallocates the supply.

If and when we get fusion power working, Helium will be the cheap by-product of the fusion...

Paco Wové said...

...because you can never have enough things to fret about.

PB Reader said...

Sigh. We obtained the helium to fill the reserve from natural gas. We can do it again. Besides the helium in the reserve is not going to zero, it is the funding for the operation of the reserve that is at risk. When the funding ends, the tap is shut off and the helium is not sold with the rest left in the reserve.

John Lynch said...

No, we'll have more helium than we know what to do with because of fusion reactors.

Rusty said...

Does anybody even weld with it anymore? Argon is cheaper and carriers an arc better. I don't think I've seen a tank in any of the local welding shops in 15 years.

Diogenes of Sinope said...

Of course the helium market is all screwed up......it's run by politicians. We should sell off all of this rare critical resource to private investors who will properly value and price it. At market prices users will limit their use and producers will work to capture as much helium as possible from natural gas.

Aric said...

Fusion results in very little helium. A 1-TW p-Li fusion reactor (far more than enough to provide the United States' electricity demands, and one of the most helium-yielding reactions) would produce about ten grams of helium per second.

The United States mined - on average, from natural gas wells mostly - about 375 grams per second of helium in 2011.

Aric said...

Correction: about 15 grams per second from the reactor. Still just a few percent of the current production.

Dr.D said...

I have had this concern about our unthinking way of throwing away this resource for quite a few years. Every time I have ever raised it, I have been laughed at for my concern. I am glad to see someone else raise this issue.

jimbino said...

This worry is typical of those in the Soviet Union. In a free market, folks can rely on price signals and don't need to fret about relative values. Relying on price signaling is what keeps me from participating in the recycling nonsense. Let those who really care about helium and used aluminum buy it up and sort through my trash. They are sure to profit from the sale one day.

Rusty said...

Although Jimbino is being sarcastic he is correct.

Recycling is a huge waste of money.

clint said...

Technically, we will someday use up the helium gas trapped in accessible locations, just like natural gas.

Before we panic, it would be nice to know whether that someday is more likely to be a century from now or a million years from now.

Because a thousand years from now, the notion that helium is a finite resource will be laughable.

Once we've got a working asteroid mining industry, helium is essentially free. The mass of helium freely available in Jupiter's atmosphere alone weighs more than the entire planet Earth. Helium is the second most abundant element in the solar system. At that point it's like worrying that we'll run out of sand or salt water.

Cedarford said...

The Drill SGT said...
So let's review.

It's found in gas deposits. So until we run out of gas, we won't run out of helium.

What we have is consumption exceeding production and eating into inventory.

The exacerbating issue is that government market intervention and price setting at lower than the market price misallocates the supply.

If and when we get fusion power working, Helium will be the cheap by-product of the fusion...

And
Clint: "Once we've got a working asteroid mining industry, helium is essentially free. The mass of helium freely available in Jupiter's atmosphere alone weighs more than the entire planet Earth."

==================
1. Helium only shows up in a few nat gas deposits out of tens of thousands tapped. The US got lucky and has 7 of the 11 deposits with significant helium.

2. Market forces of Freedom loving capitalists only set price for what it is worth today, not for anticipated, needed future use.

3. A working fusion reactor would use a miniscule amount of hydrogen. What makes you think a few grams of hydrogen used per hour would translate into copious amounts of helium after use? Or that it would be recoverable in yield margins and price that would make an expensive recovery process even feasible.

4. There are always pie in the cosmos space enthusiasts that think we can easily and cheaply recover helium from deep gravity wells like Jupiter. Lots of luck. The same folks say "until new miracle high tech" comes along, they really can't make just going to the moon and loading up a ton or two of platinum bars without even having to mine for it - a profitable venture.

Carl said...

We should transition to hydrogen party balloons immediately. Much more fun anyway.

Flamen Portunalis said...

As has been pointed out, helium on Earth has to be produced by radioactive decay and it cannot be made to go any faster without violating laws of physics. Cedarford is right to say that fusion will not solve the problem. I used to work in a lab that needed liquid helium and I saw prices rise and availability decline precipitously, we had to get our own liquefaction system to get around the problem.

While it may be true that one day we will wonder about the folly of using such precious stuff for children's parties, we can wonder today the same thing about whale oil. As it gets more rare and precious it will not be something that will be used at parties anymore.

Cedarford is wrong to say that market forces put value only on the present. The existence of insurance companies and the profession of actuary are well-known facts that belie this. Market forces put value on what is KNOWN about the future.

Rusty said...

2. Market forces of Freedom loving capitalists only set price for what it is worth today, not for anticipated, needed future use.

Put it on the commodities exchange and sell futures.

khematite@aol.com said...

And let's not forget that, increasingly, the preferred method for ending one's life in cases of unbearable terminal illness involves putting one's head in a plastic bag and then filling it with helium. I hear it's a very painless death.

http://exiteuthanasia.wordpress.com/tag/helium/

Sam Hall said...

I would bet that every use Cedarford has for helium, he doesn't recycle it, but vents it into the air.
NASA, which was the largest user of helium when they were flying the space shuttle,bitched about running out, but could they bother to recover it? noooo.

EMD said...

I blame Alvin. And the other chipmunks.

lgv said...

Market intervention and government action created the problem and continues the problem.

Technical divers I know are concerned because of rising price and limited supply. (It is used air substitute in deep diving)

The market will take care of the problem. Once it gets too expensive, no one will use it for balloons. Gee, it's almost like basic economics.