Why is there a helium shortage?


I live near a business that has tank farms and piping for pressurized gases. They provide a lot of oxygen for health care use. If they can “manufacture” a gas, why can’t they make more helium?

In: 5

Helium is a very light gas which if free in the atmosphere will eventually float off into space. Helium is only “made” naturally by the radioactive decay of Uranium and it takes a long time. “Making” oxygen is relatively easy just cool down some air using something like Liquid Nitrogen and condense air into Liquid Oxygen and Liquid Nitrogen then separate them because they boil at different temperatures.

Oxygen, Nitrogen, and CO2 are easy to *manufacture* because they are abundant in the atmosphere. All you need to do is compress air and you’ll have a bunch of the 3 gases.

Helium on the other hand is only found in the atmosphere in trace amounts. The problem is that it is so light that it eventually escapes into space. So virtually all of the Helium that was around when the Earth was formed has already disappeared into space

Hydrogen similarly is light and escapes into space, but unlike Helium which is chemically inert, Hydrogen reacts with other atoms to form heavier molecules which stick around… like water.

Helium is only found in large quantities on Earth underground, the result of millions of years of radioactive materials like Uranium decaying into Helium atoms.

The problem is that we are using it up at an extraordinary rate… mostly because we use it to fill balloons and other complete wastes of the gas.

This is now quickly becoming a problem because the US’s reserves of Helium are being drained and liquid Helium is a critical part of high tech equipment like MRI scanners.

We can mine more, but price controls and various technical limitations make it impractical at the moment.

The Long term the solution to the Helium crisis will likely be Nuclear Fusion. If we can figure out how to make Nuclear Fusion reactors commercially viable, Helium will be made as a bi-product.

In the meanwhile we have to stop wasting it in things like balloons so that we can stretch out our available supply.

They don’t ‘manufacture’ it, they generally liquify air and separate the oxygen out. But it’s abundant in the air.

For Helium you can’t do that, only 0.0005% or something of the atmosphere is Helium.
you have to actually find pockets of helium in the Earth, it’s usually found near Uranium.

Also there’s a historical problem, there’s big deposits in the US and its price controlled. So there wasn’t a lot of incentive to find new deposits because you can’t get a fair market value for it.

As a result now there’s a supply problem.

You can’t manufacture helium. At least not on a viable scale.

Oxygen is easy to extract from the atmosphere, there’s loads of it in there. Nitrogen even more so. Carbon dioxide is easy enough too. Chlorine isn’t too hard as you can use electrolysis on salts. Ditto Bromine. Hydrogen can be obtained by electrolysis on water (oxygen also). Things like Argon and Radon are in the atmosphere in low quantities but are there so you can extract them.

Helium pretty much isn’t. It doesn’t react with anything so you can’t extract it from another molecule, and it’s much much less dense than air so when released rises to the top of the atmosphere and then escapes.

All helium on earth is the result of radioactive decay – some elements release “alpha particles” when they decay, these are a fast moving helium nucleus that promptly snatches a couple of electrons and turns into helium. When radioactive elements buried deep underground decay the freshly minted helium can’t go anywhere, so it builds up. When this built up helium makes it into gas reserves and can get extracted along with the rest of the target gas. It isn’t very economical to harvest off the helium so it mostly gets let go.

For a long time the US government made companies harvest it – partly to use in blimps – but they stopped. They were sitting on giant stored reserves of helium, but that costs money to maintain so they sold it off over the years, and now reserves are getting low enough it’s getting expensive to get enough helium for things we use it for.

Mandating helium capture from natural gas extraction would help some, though might be a while before that’s implemented.

And no – there’s no realistic way to generate enough helium via radioactive decay in nuclear reactors and so on. It would cost a fortune to get enough to fill a party balloon.

Oxygen, Helium and Nitrogen Gases are not manufactured they are refined from something that contains them. They don’t “make” Helium, because Helium is a basic element. In most cases they get Helium as a by-product of natural gas refining.