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There's no such thing as a 'helium market', say NAS boffins

Under the Reserve, the US government arranged that the gas wells richest in helium would be hooked up to a special pipeline network spanning Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado, connected to the Bush Dome - a big underground dome full of permeable gassy rock with a covering of impermeable stone over it. As natural gas was extracted through wells, the resulting "crude" (low-purity) helium was injected into the Dome for easy extraction later, when NASA or the nuclear-missile forces should need it.

In the event, though space and nuke rocketry is to this day a major user of helium (accounting for about a quarter of US consumption), they didn't need that much, and vast amounts - some 35 billion cubic feet, compared to annual use of 650 million foot3 - built up in the Bush Dome. After the Cold War, meanwhile, reliable supplies of helium for then-rapidly-reducing missile forces seemed less important.

Thus in 1996 Congress passed a law saying that almost all the Federal Helium Reserve stock was to be sold off by 2015 at such prices as to recoup the expense the US taxpayers had gone to in establishing it.

This is the plan which the NAS analysts say is going wrong. They point out the facts that the Bush Dome is the only major storage facility in the world**, and that the Reserve sales programme makes up more than half the global supply. Meanwhile, only a handful of companies have any access to the Bush Dome and its associated pipelines, and they tend to do business with each other and their customers behind closed doors.

Thus, according to the NAS, "there is no actual 'market' for crude helium... there is no 'market price'".

Worse still, the prices set by the 1996 Act and the 2015 deadline are making it very difficult for scientific researchers to afford enough helium - and the pace of extraction from the Bush Dome will leave a lot of its contents needlessly trapped underground, unrecoverable. The fact that the government is selling large amounts of helium every year, too, means that nobody is bothering to explore for new sources.

The assembled NAS analysts say that the government should, firstly, open up access to the Dome and its pipeline network, so creating a proper market for helium. The gas should be sold, in general, at a higher and more realistic price - so encouraging exploration and paying off the taxpayers faster.

This would be bad for scientific research, however, so the NAS recommends the extension of the so-called "in kind" scheme under which federally-funded boffins with small budgets would be able to get cheap helium. Some already can, but many funding bodies don't participate.

Finally, the NAS aren't sure that the plan of getting rid of almost all the US - and thus almost all the world's - stock of helium is that good an idea, at least until some new sources are found. The report's authors recommend that the plan be "re-evaluated".

You can read the whole thing here (free registration required). ®

* USS Akron, USS Macon and USS Shenandoah - three out of the four rigid airships to see service with the US Navy - were all destroyed in disasters despite being helium filled.

** Barring a reported one in a "salt dome" in Russia.

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