Helium: conserve what we may one day need

Before 1950, trillions of cubic feet of natural gas were burned wastefully because there were inadequate pipeline systems in the United States to carry it to where it could have been used. Today we'd give a lot to have back the gas we wasted. But if, in 1940, someone of pushed for a government storage program for natural gas, in anticipation of a future scarcity, he would have been hooted down.

Today, we have a similar situation with regard to helium. Helium is a unique gas. It is light, but it will not burn. It cannot be made radioactive. It remains liquid down to the lowest temperature yet reached, almost absolute zero (-273) degrees C.); consequently it is uniquely qualified for cryogenic applications, such as long-distance transport of electricity of the cooling of the great magnets which may make fusion power possible.

Like natural gas 40 years ago, the present demand for helium is low compared with the existing supply. But we may need a lot more helium in the future if we develop certain complex technologies: cryogenic transmission of electricity, fusion power, the magnetohydrodynamic "topping cycle" for thermal power plants, magnetic transport systems, and gas- cooled nuclear reactors. The estimated time for such technologies to mature and thus create a high demand for helium: 40 years.

Well, you may say, let's keep the helium wherever it is now until we need it. What's the problem?

The problem is that economic concentrations of helium are found only in natural gas, which is being burned as fuel, allowing the helium to escape into the atmosphere. In this respect, the helium situation is like that of natural gas 40 years ago. Then, the wasted natural gas had been found in crude oil and had to produced with the oil. Where there was no market for the gas, it was flared.

Most natural gas has less than 0.3 percent helium in it. AT that grade and above, natural gas is called "helium rich." For geologic reasons that remain unclear, almost all helium- rich natural gas in the world is in the US. About 60 percent is in western Kansas and Oklahoma and the panhandle of Texas. Three companies now separate helium from helium- rich natural gas and sell it on the open market to meet the current demand, which is for blimps, inert welding atmosphere, leak testing, and other small uses. However, some of the separated helium is being vented to the atmosphere and wasted. The explanation for this venting requires a brief look at the history of an aborted attempt to store helium for the future.

In 1960 Congress authorized the US Bureau of Mines to buy helium from private producers for storage in a depleted gas field near Amarillo, Texas. The costs of the program were to be financed out of income from helium sales. Until sales income was adequate to meet program costs, the bureau was authorized to borrow operating funds from the US Treasury. Borrowed funds and accrued interest, at 10 percent, were to be repaid within 25 years.

The Bureau of Mines contracted with four companies, which built separation plants, bought helium-rich natural gas from private owners, and started to supply helium to the government in 1962. However, demand started to fall, the private producers undercut the government on its sale price of for helium, and the program became more and more in debt to the treasury. In 1973 the contracts were terminated and the government ceased accepting helium for storage. The companies then went to court. Initial judgements have gone against the government, but the helium purchase program remains suspented.

One of the private separation plants closed, but three continued to operate, separating natural-gas liquids for sale and upgrading the energy content of the processed gas by removing the inert gases, including helium. Low demand for helium and the government's refusal to accept helium for storage forced these plants to vent separated helium of the atmoshpere. During the last seven years, about 10 billion cubic feet of helium has been wasted in this manner and more than twice this amount has been released to the atomosphere by the helium was not extracted.

The nation's proved reserves of helium (in helium-rich gas) continue to drop and will be essentially exhausted in 20 years. Researves may get a boost in the next few years from the Tip Top Field of western Wyoming, now being developed as a natural-gas field by Mobil Corporation. It contains helium-rich gas, but nobody yet knows how much, and there are no plants to separate and store its helium.

It is clear that the nation's heritage of readily available helium is wasting into the atmosphere and that it may have none left 20 years from now. Unfortunately, there is no way to prove that future generations will be better off if it is saved for them.

There is wide difference of opinion on what should be done. The government maintains that US helium "resources" are more than adequate to meet "foreseeable" needs. Some economists maintain that this nation will inevitably be much richer in 40 years, having developed substitutes for helium or being able to afford to get it out of the air. Some physical scientists and engineers , on the other hand, fear that helium costs in 40 years may actually rule out certain tehcnologic options if the US does not store helium in the ground while it is cheap. These people are appalled at the wasteage of already separated helium into the air, and would argue -- as did a National Academy of Sciences heluim study committee in 1978 -- that venting be stopped, idled separation plants be reactivated, helium storage be resumed, and sales of helium from government storage be halted until authorized by some future Contress.

Despite the uncertainly of future demand, it appears that the present generation has a grand speculative opportunity, to set aside a gift for future generations that may prove to be worth much more than it cost. In the next 20 years all the helium in the helium-rich gas that remains in the ground could be recovered at a cost of $2 billion. That sounds like a lot, until we compare it with the $127 billion government "take" from the windfall-profit tax on crude-oil production, or with what the same helium may be worth in the year 2020 , perhaps $500 billion.

IF a cost increase of 250 times and sounds fantastic, consider what has happened to the price of natural gas. AT today's import price, it costs 40 times what it did in Texas 15 years ago, and in a few years, it will probably cost 70 times what it did in 1965. Helium could be worse, for it has been calculated that the energy required helium from air will be 800 times that needed to get it out of helium-rich natural gas. Natural gas is a fine fuel, but substitutes are available. For helium, in some of its most important uses, there are no substitutes.

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