I heard the sun has plenty. Just send a tanker down there..... :-)
Seriously though, where does the Helium come from? Is there not a small but retrieveable quantity in the atmosphere? Or does it all head up to the top of the atmosphere? Maybe there's a good sideline for airlines - mining helium from the higher atmosphere? If it's so critical, should we be using it in party balloons? Wouldn't Hydrogen be better for that? (yes, I know, some idiot would hold a match to a balloon sometime and sue someone.... :-)
I think we need more information here... why do we need to tap into the "reserves" and why does the current deal expire on October 7th? WHy can't current suppliers fill the need? I know there are companies, such as Air Products & Chemicals, that sell industrial gases. Not understanding the issue clearly.
1) there is a very finite amount of He left on the planet. Some estimates put it at between 25 to 50 years supply. He is a byproduct of natural gas production but is present in usable amounts in only very very few parts of the world.
2) As mentioned the USA hold about 1/3 of the worlds supply.
3) Not sure if this recently changed but in the past ALL He recovered from gas production was required to go into the government 'Reserves' and was allocated to primary distributers (Airgas, etc.) from there.
4) Sale price of He from the stockpile has NEVER followed a realistic pricing vs availability model. In the past the prices were far below what 'the market' would dictate. The recent astronomical rise in price for He - our cost has gone up 150% in the last 2 years plus we and most users are now on a need/allocation basis - is because the price controls were somewhat lifted along with the amount being released for sale has been reduced..
5) Sadly there is no viable replacement for its myrid of uses. Even widespread fusion projects running for a year would hardly fill 1-day of He consumption.
Some high volume uses: Aluminum wleding, magnet cooling for medical scanners, anything needing an inert yet thermal conductive process atmosphere, backfilling cryo storage tanks, CO2 and several other gas lasers (He is a buffer gas par-excellance). For all of these and many many more simply put, nothing can take it's place without serious complications to be overcome.
I had already heard of problems with the helium supply chain. A fast investigation @ wikipedia revealed the true reason for the shortage:
It is not a problem of availability. It's just an issue of 'market'. A downtransient in helium prices, accompanied by the availability of the US helium reserve resulted in an increase in helium usage (even where other gases had been used before). On the other hand the industrial gas suppliers partly lost interest in the production (better: extraction) of helium from natural gas (the 'standard' source for helium).
NOW we have increased consumption paired with lowered production. An example of free market economy. The solution could be simple: when helium prices are going up the producers will produce. It might take some time to build/reactivate the production facilities ... A cycle that is well-known from the semiconductor industry.
I thought I had read that the government wanted to privatize and sell off the reserve. Was that really a discussion a few years back or am I thinking of something else. If I recall correctly, the general consensus was that doing so would be a pretty bad idea.
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