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The problem with (affordable) helium

Electron shell 002 Wikipedia Helium Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Electron_shell_002_Helium_-_no_label.svgIf I had had space, I would have included a subtitle for this piece as follows: Things do not have to run out to become unavailable. So, now you have a general idea about the problem with helium, a problem to which I'll return shortly. But, first let me discuss the broader issue my subtitle enunciates.

How many times have you heard someone say that we have huge quantities of such and such a resource underground (or even in seawater), so there is nothing to worry about? It is hard to know where to start with this simplification because it comes from minds that are so egregiously uninformed.

There are dozens of reasons that things can become unavailable before they ever "run out." It is a favorite ploy among cornucopians (mostly economists) to accuse those warning of resource shortages of saying that some particular resource, say oil, is running out. But that is not what they are saying at all. Rather, the realists, as I call them, are simply pointing out that a number of factors are coming together than may raise the cost of obtaining such resources beyond the means of many to afford them.

The rich will pay whatever price is necessary for their food and energy. These are small percentages of their income even if food and energy costs double, triple or go up 10 times. But such is not the case for the vast majority of humans on the planet. At some price, food becomes unaffordable, gasoline becomes unaffordable, and even drinkable water become unaffordable.

What this tells us is that the smooth functioning of the global system depends not just on resources, but widely affordable resources and the products and services they make possible. Whatever the causes of an affordability problem are, millions and even billions could go without adequate food and fuel as a result. Many on the margins would become ill from inadequate nutrition, some might starve outright, and many could freeze for lack of warmth in cold climates.

Perhaps all this is too dramatic just yet. So let's take an example of something which has already become suddenly and unexpectedly less available: Helium.

Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen. But, on planet Earth it is exceedingly rare. The main source is decaying radioactive minerals in the Earth's crust which emit helium nuclei as part of their decay process. A small portion of this helium gets trapped in natural gas reservoirs. The rest makes its way into the atmosphere and then into outer space. Very few gas reservoirs are rich enough in this trapped helium to make it worthwhile to extract, process and get to market. Unless we find another affordable source of helium, this means that helium production will necessarily peak and decline when the helium-rich natural gas reservoirs that hold it peak and decline.

It wouldn't matter so much that helium is becoming hard to get if it were not for the fact that for many applications there is no substitute, none. Let me quote at length from a piece I did more than four years ago entitled "Let's party 'til the helium's gone":

 

Perhaps the most important uses of helium are in its liquid form. Helium is the gold standard for low-temperature processes and research. In its liquid state it can reach temperatures as low as -459 degrees F or almost absolute zero, the temperature at which all molecular motion would cease. (No one has ever succeeded at reaching absolute zero, and theoretically, it is thought to be impossible to achieve.)
Liquid helium simply has no equal. Currently, it is critical in magnetic resonance imaging, a non-invasive diagnostic procedure that allows physicians to obtain images of many tissues and organs, notably the brain, that are superior to those provided by X-rays. This is an application for which superconductivity is critical, and very low temperatures are essential for optimum results. In addition, superconductivity is an area of intense ongoing scientific research for ways to reduce electricity losses in the electrical grid and increase the efficiency of power storage and electric motors.
Perhaps the most visible use for helium beyond filling balloons is that in filling airships or blimps. More exotic uses include rocketry where helium is used to flush out fuel tanks and then prepare [that is, condense] liquid oxygen and hydrogen for those tanks. Helium is preferred for this work and for blimps because it is nonflammable and inert, that is, under ordinary circumstances it doesn't chemically combine with other elements.
These two properties also make it ideal as a shielding gas for certain types of critical welding. Preventing normal atmospheric gases from reaching a weld can enhance its strength and quality. The same properties make helium critical for producing silicon wafers, the basis of today's electronic world.
In addition, helium is used for heat transfer in gas-cooled nuclear reactors, and it is used to check for leaks in critical equipment because it flows more readily through such leaks. There are many more uses, both industrial and scientific, but you get the idea.

First, we are not running out of helium. What's happening is that the U.S. government, which for years dominated the helium business, has been gradually getting out.

All this was telegraphed a long time ago to industry. In 1996 the U.S. Congress passed a law mandating that the government get out of the helium business by 2015. That was supposed to give plenty of time for the private marketplace to pick up where government would leave off.

But, it hasn't turned out that way. Congress let the Federal Helium Program set prices too low in order to hasten the liquidation of its stockpile. Those low prices kept away potential new entrants into the helium business. And, now as the federal program ratchets up the price to address the problem, consumers of helium are yelling "ouch." And yet, at the same time there are few new players to replace the dwindling federal supply in the market.

It's not clear what price helium would have to rise to in order to incentivize private development. Since 1925 the U.S. government has essentially dominated the market, so there is no historical free market price to look at. One would have thought that with the impending government withdrawal from the market, some savvy entrepreneur would be stockpiling helium for the day when the price would skyrocket.

But such is not the case. For one thing, it takes an extensive infrastructure to capture helium from natural gas fields and thus a huge investment, one that few would undertake without reasonable assurances that prices would rise to cover the costs.

But perhaps even more important, U.S. sources are the world's most prolific. Nothing compares to them. And, this is not simply a question of incentivizing people to go out and look for economical deposits of helium. Helium currently is found only in commercial quantities in natural gas reservoirs and then only certain ones. All the richest sources, therefore, are already being produced.

The only course then is to raise the price of helium to a level where much leaner resources of helium could profitably be extracted from natural gas reservoirs, prices high enough to justify huge capital outlays. Keep in mind that separating helium from natural gas requires temperatures of -315 degrees F.

As prices rise to make these more-costly-to-get helium resources available, who will be priced out of the market? Right now, it turns out, people who want helium for party balloons are willing to pay the most. It's a small part of the market, but it shows that the distribution of helium in a higher cost world might not turn out to be what most of us would think is socially desirable. Many research labs might not be able to afford as much. Other critical uses in medicine and computer chip manufacture might be curtailed or result in considerably higher costs for medical diagnosis and electronic equipment.

All this is to demonstrate that a resource does not have to "run out" in order for it to become unavailable to large numbers of people. There are plenty of molecules of helium in the Earth. But the cost of getting them out for all who want to use them, even for critically important purposes, might be too high for many to bear.

The same analysis can be done for other finite resources, oil, coal, natural gas, rare earth minerals, lithium and many more. The cornucopians like to say that we will never run out of what we need. The market will provide the necessary incentives for getting more out of the Earth more efficiently or for finding substitutes. We will always have what we need when we need it at prices we can afford in the quantities we require.

But, there is no guarantee that this will happen in every instance that we want it to. As such the above assertion is simply an article of faith in the economics field, born of an era in which the rate of resource extraction was rising continuously and limits were nowhere in sight.

Now, limits do not mean that we have "run out." Instead, they mean that we cannot produce at a higher rate or that we cannot produce at a higher rate without significantly higher prices or that no viable substitute, competitive in price and sufficient in quantity, can be found.

The socially desirable outcomes we might want to see with regard to resource use do not have to be mandated. Market-based incentives--which must include high taxes on the resources we want people to use less of--can go a long way quickly to bring our choices in line with our long-term best interests.

It's either that or we can party 'til the remaining resources of helium and other critical substances are reduced to the point where we no longer have enough time to make a transition to a society that can adapt to their loss of affordability.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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