Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/02/05/helium_dome_forever/

US gov's emptying of vast Texan helium-tank dome 'wrong'

Vital for LHC, rockets, airships - and the entire IT biz

By Lewis Page

Posted in HPC, 5th February 2010 14:10 GMT

A hefty sci/tech body has said that the USA's current policy of selling off its enormous reserves of helium gas - which it keeps stored in a gigantic subterranean dome reservoir in Texas - is all wrong. This is partly because the plan is cocking up the global helium market, and partly because helium is vital for many activities dear to the hearts of Reg readers.

Specifically, the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) says, helium is of course vital for airships and blimps - unless you want to go for hydrogen, generally seen as rather too prone to exploding. Helium is also vital as a coolant in the field of superconducting magnets, and thus very important to enormous particle-smasher facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider and their exciting attendant possibilities of dimensional portal invasion or planetary soupening mishap.

Superchilled superconductor magnets are also used for less extreme scientific research, and famously for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans - popular both for medicine and radical brainprobe research.

The stuff is also widely employed for creating controlled atmospheres, crucial in chip and semiconductor fabrication and for making optical fibre - in other words the IT industry's hardware makers are heavily dependent on helium, too. So you can sit up there at the back.

Perhaps even more critically, helium is vital as the only suitable substance for the flushing out of liquid-fuelled rockets - and thus it is key both to the space programme and the US strategic missile forces. In fact this is the reason why the US government originally established its present vast stocks of the precious gas during the Cold War at the Federal Helium Reserve, stashing huge amounts in the Bush Dome underground rock formation in Texas.

However, even before then helium had been seen as militarily important, largely because of its use in airships and blimps. Famously, during the era of the great interwar dirigibles, the USA refused to supply Nazi Germany with helium. Such legendary vessels as the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg were thus hydrogen-filled, while the flying aircraft carriers of the US Navy enjoyed the use of helium - though ultimately this didn't seem to make them much safer*. At that time, all the world's helium came from certain American natural-gas fields, and production was almost entirely for military airships.

That seems to be a fairly clean sweep: airships, space rockets, nuclear missiles, IT hardware (including the iPad - ha!) enormous magnetic particle cannon dimension portals, MRI brainprobes - even deep-diving breathing gases. Helium is indeed important stuff.

It's also quite rare on Earth. Though the second-most-common element in the universe after hydrogen, small helium molecules are so light they escape into space once free in the atmosphere. Like natural gas, they can be trapped in underground rock formations - but they leak out a lot quicker. There wouldn't be any helium in or on Earth at all, goes the thinking, except that radiocative decay of uranium and thorium in the Earth's crust produces alpha particles. These are, of course, helium nuclei once they've slowed down. Thus there is a constant trickle of new helium being formed within the planet, enough that in some locations it builds up to extractable levels in subterranean gas pockets.

Helium is also pretty expensive to store for any length of time, which means that normal natural-gas drilling and refining operations, producing helium as a waste product, would normally throw it away if there was no customer just then. Once airships went away after WWII, this seemed set to happen quite a lot - which could have been bad news down the road for the US rocket programme once all the helium was gone: hence the establishment of the Federal Helium Reserve in 1960.

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.