04 July 2016

"The world is running out of helium." Not.

The discovery of a previously-unknown helium gas field resulted in a number of stories reminding us how critically low the world's helium reserves are.
For the first time ever, researchers have tracked and located a helium gas field. And the discovery, presented Tuesday during the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Japan, could help allay fears about a global helium shortage, which could affect such sectors as medicine and manufacturing...

Even though helium is one of the most abundant elements in the universe, there’s concern that it may be running dry here on planet Earth.
That was the understanding I had had for years.  That's why I understood the U.S. maintains its National Helium Reserve.  But the claim of a world shortage of the gas is hogwash, according to this report in Wired:
Most of the world’s helium comes from natural gas, where it can exist in very small quantities. A good source will be about 3 percent helium, but more often helium hovers between 0.1 percent and 0.5 percent—nothing compared to the relatively astronomical 10 percent pocket found in Tanzania. But worldwide, helium is about a thousand times less lucrative than gas, so even though removing (inert) helium makes the gas burn better, companies don’t usually bother to take it out. “Normally, it’s an afterthought,” says Samuel Burton, assistant field manager at the Federal Helium Program. “It’s something that they don’t even consider because the natural gas makes so much more money for them.”

When helium’s price goes up—like it has for most of the past few years—natural gas companies are incentivized to sell extracted helium on its own. Countries like Qatar mine so much natural gas that even though it has relatively little helium, they can crank out a decent percentage of the world’s demand as an afterthought...

There is actually so much helium that’s flooding the market that it’s not in short supply at all,” Burton says. And as for the future, “I’ve seen a lot of talk about this global shortage of helium—that’s actually not the case. In the United States, we’ve got at least 20 years of known supplies that are easily, readily available.” 


  1. 20 years. Why that's practically forever.

  2. I think they are trying to say that we have 20 years worth we can get to today, and 20 years from now we will likely have another 20 year dolly located and available. And so on. At last least that's the only thing which makes any sense to me.

  3. Have verified that there is not (yet!) a rebuttal linked to the page through rutr.com. But having been alerted, I'll keep an eye out for responses to the article from knowledgeable people.

  4. If there was only 20 years of oil left, the market would be terrified. People might imagine that helium is only used for balloons but that is completely untrue. It is used in lots of scientific research. BJ Nicholls has nailed it.

    1. You must have missed this bit in the article (re: worldwide estimates):

      "That’s enough for about 117 more years."


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