Helium: exciting uses -- if there's enough left

Twenty years before "liftoff" is envisioned for some advanced energy-related technologies now showing promise in the laboratory, there is concern a future shortage of helium could keep them grounded.

Among the new technologies which might depend upon the light-weight, inert gas is fusion power.

Helium, contained in natural gas as well as in the atmosphere, is used today in blimps, deep-sea diving, and some metallurgical processes. It is abundant in the United States and relatively cheap.

But its limited use and ample supply have encouraged waste. In a report last year, the General Accounting Office estimated 13 billion cubic feet of helium escapes into the atmosphere each year in the normal production of natural gas. Commercial production of helium in the US totaled about 1 billion cubic feet last year, according to the US Bureau of Mines.

Scientists warn there could be a shortage of helium at an economical price early next century, when new technologies dependent on the gas come on-stream.

Fusion and magnetohydrodynamics, for example, are being studied as advanced methods of generating power that may rely on helium. Since helium does not freeze at very low temperatures, it can be converted to a liquid and used to keep other materials cool, which can, in turn, function as superconductors of electricity.

This property of helium allows it to help establish the large magnetic field necessary in fusion and magnetohydrodynamics power generation. It also could be useful in advanced systems of electric power transmission. Power lines kept cold with helium insulation would be much more efficient.

The concern is that as natural gas wells are depleted, the only remaining source of helium will be the atmosphere. And extracting helium from the air is far more expensive than tapping it as a byproduct of natural gas.

Some think the federal government should buy and store helium to protect against future shortages. Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan has co-sponsored legislation calling on the Department of Energy (DOE) to buy and store helium at a cost of $17 million to taxpayers over the next four years.

The US government had a conservation program from 1960 to 1971 that included contracts to buy helium from four private companies and government storage of the gas at Cliffside, Texas.The Bureau of Mines still operates the Texas storage facility, but its content of 40 billion cubic feet of helium has not increased measurably since the early 1970s.

The government purchase of helium has ceased. The Bureau of Mines produces helium at a plant in Oklahoma, but the bulk of the gas is sold to other branches of the federal government, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Defense, and the DOE.

Ray Munnerlyn, director of the helium program for the Bureau of Mines, said in a phone interview that the push for a new federal conservation program is premature. Referring to the future technologies that may require helium, he said, "Those uses are so far in the future that we just do not know if it is in the government's best interest to spend a lot of money now on helium."

He added: "Also, there is a lot of helium in the US now and a lot more will be discovered. There is no urgency about this."

Mr. Munnerlyn referred specifically to Mobil Oil Corporation's natural gas drilling program at "tip top" field in western Wyoming. The field is still being explored to determine its commercial value, but the natural gas there is known to be rich in helium. And since most of the field is on federal land, the government could have access to a huge new supply of helium in a matter of a few years. The field may hold as much helium as is now being stored in Texas, Mr. Munnerlyn said.

But the scientific community, acknowledging the unproved nature of the helium-dependent technologies, views the cost of a conservation program as well justified. "It would cost so darn little compared to the possible future value, " asserted Dr. Earl Cook, dean of geosciences at Texas A&M University.

Mr. Cook sees a parallel between natural gas and helium. Only 30 years ago natural gas was routinely flared in Texas, and as recently as 15 years ago it sold for 10 cents per thousand cubic feet. Today, natural gas imports cost in excess of $4 per thousand cubic feet.

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