Deficit Reduction Genius

It took a few billion years to form the earth’s supply of helium (that’s 7 days for those of you who went to high school in the Bible Belt). This generation is going to piss it away in kid’s balloons, in part because the stuff is being sold on the cheap in order to put a few bucks in the US Treasury.

[…]A billion cubic metres – or about half of the world’s reserves – are now stored in this cluster of mines, pipes and vats that extend underground for more than 200 miles from Amarillo to Kansas.

But in 1996, the US passed the Helium Privatisation Act which directed that this reserve should be sold by 2015 at a price that would substantially pay off the federal government’s original investment in building up the reserve.

The law stipulated the amount of helium sold off each year should follow a straight line with the same amount being sold each year, irrespective of the global demand for it. This, according to Professor Richardson, who won his Nobel prize for his work on helium-3, was a mistake. “As a result of that Act, helium is far too cheap and is not treated as a precious resource,” he said. “It’s being squandered.” [emphasis mine]

Helium is used to cool infrared detectors, nuclear reactors and MRI scanners. It can’t be synthesized, yet we’re selling it so cheaply that recycling doesn’t make financial sense.

I understand the theory behind privatization, but I sure haven’t seen much worthwhile practice. (via)

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27 replies
  1. 1
    PurpleGirl says:

    Stupid, stupid, stupid.

  2. 2
    Ginger Yellow says:

    What do you mean it can’t be synthesised? All you need is a fusion reactor! And they’re dead easy to build.

  3. 3
    newsouthzach says:

    Yep, this is a matter of tremendous concern to the low-temperature physics community. The helium-4 is not such a big deal — I mean, it’s important, and it would be nice to at least get market price for it, but we can cool things to 4 K with closed-cycle refrigeration. What really sucks is that DHS has glommed up all the helium-3 for neutron detectors at ports. It’s a good neutron detector, but other light nuclei work almost as well. The special quantum properties of helium 3 make it invaluable for cooling things to within a few thousandths of a degree above absolue zero, and there is no replacement for that.

  4. 4

    This is undoubtedly one of Newt’s brainstorms that he pushed through during his glory days as House Speaker.

    That’s enough reason right there to repeal it if at all possible.

  5. 5
    ppcli says:

    It’s all the fault of the demon-rat party and their mindless regulation. There’s plenty of helium right there on the sun for big business to sell if the guvment would just get out of its way.

  6. 6
    WereBear says:

    “Privatization theory” is crap. Just a load of snake oil for them to justify making a profit on everything.

  7. 7
    Belafon (formerly anonevent) says:

    I want to hear EDK’s response to this.

  8. 8
    Egypt Steve says:

    Actually, I’m all for this. In college, we used to have helium parties: get a cylinder of helium from a local party supply store, inflate a garbage bag, tie it off at the bottom, and put a long straw in so, as the garbage bag floats around the room, people can grab it and take a hit. Believe me: dialing on helium is a hell of a lot better than dialing drunk!

  9. 9
    steviez314 says:

    But it’s so much fun to breathe it in and talk like a chipmunk!

    Worth every penny.

  10. 10
    gnomedad says:

    If helium is going to be more valuable in the future (because scarcer), then conventional free market logic says that the greedy bastards will be motivated to hang onto it. Why is this not happening? My guess is that basic physics research is not exactly a financial force to be reckoned with and it’s soshulist and should be cut anyhow.

    Update: okay, I missed the “straight line” mandate, but the argument still applies that someone should be expected to purchase and hoard this “too cheap” helium.

  11. 11
    Steaming Pile says:

    Actually, the market price of helium has risen markedly in recent years. The government ought to be able to make a nice profit from the sale.

    You should check out the Wikipedia article on helium. Very interesting, and it covers extraction and industrial use as well as the chemistry part.

  12. 12
    newsouthzach says:

    @Steaming Pile:
    I was quite certain that the helium reserves were being sold off at a mandated minimum price, but I just checked, and they changed it this year to sell closer to market value. Still not getting full value on the reserves, but it’s better than I thought…

  13. 13
    Herb says:

    What a waste

  14. 14
    A Squirrel says:

    How on god’s green earth does that bill resemble ‘real’ privatization? It looks like it goes out of its way to undermine market forces. It looks like a terrible, terrible bill that happens to have “privatization” in the title.

    I understand the theory behind privatization, but I sure haven’t seen much worthwhile practice.

    Taken at face value, this is just silly. I wasn’t overly concerned with Treasury’s purchase of a controlling interest in GM, but do you really want them to keep it? Forever? Really?

    Privatization hasn’t been a huge issue for the U.S. largely because the state hasn’t owned much industry. That said, this bill should be repealed/amended.

  15. 15
    DougL says:

    It took a few billion years to form the earth’s supply of helium (that’s 7 days for those of you who went to high school in the Bible Belt). This generation is going to piss it away in kid’s balloons…

    What am I missing? This looks like basic physics FAIL. Unless there’s a lot of nuclear transmutation going on, the earth’s supply of helium won’t be changing appreciably any time soon.

    You’re conflating “earth’s supply” (the one that took billions of years to accumulate) with “human stockpiles of collected helium” (which took considerably less time to amass).

    Granted, it takes energy to collect helium and it may be concerning that demand for the collected helium may be far outstripping the capacity to collect it.

  16. 16
    El Cid says:

    The theory of peak helium is no more than a global lie by the so-called scientists and other hoity-toity ivory tower intellectuals. I’m sure that soon citizen journalist hackers will expose hundreds of e-mails from helium monitoring agencies with innocuous phrases which to the bravely and patriotically and freemarketous will sound like evil supervillain plans.

  17. 17
    El Cid says:

    @DougL: I’m pretty sure that the reference is overall intended to discuss collected helium reserves. Perhaps the assumption that finding new supplies should not be difficult, but mostly I’ve encountered the opposite argument.

  18. 18
    PeakVT says:

    @DougL: This looks like basic physics FAIL.


    Nearly all helium on Earth is a result of radioactive decay, and thus an Earthly helium balloon is essentially a bag of retired alpha particles.
    Because helium is trapped in a similar way by non-permeable layer of rock [as] natural gas, the greatest concentrations on the planet are found in natural gas, from which most commercial helium is derived.

  19. 19
    Citizen_X says:

    @DougL: I think what’s being called “Earth’s supply,” quite reasonably, is the accumulation of He trapped in the crust along with natural gas and oil. These (acc. to Wikipedia) are at ppm up to % concentrations, as opposed to ppb concentrations disseminated through the crust which will never be available in any sort of economic sense.

    Overall, the Earth’s He supply is probably roughly at steady state, with continual production and continual loss through the atmosphere. The stratigraphically/structurally trapped He represents long-term accumulation. Apparently, we are pissing this supply away because Newt once thought “sell X amount, no matter the price” represents the Free Market.

  20. 20
    Amanda in the South Bay says:

    @Egypt Steve:

    Dude, nitrous is sooooo much better for that.

  21. 21
    Nylund says:

    As helium is a bi-product of a fusion reaction (say, from an H-bomb), I’m pretty sure this means that we have to bomb Iran.

  22. 22
    JGabriel says:

    We’ll get more helium from cold fusion, when we fuse all those hydrogen atoms together. It’s just a matter of deregulating the nuclear industry and waiting for the proper Randian übermensch to solve it all for us!


  23. 23
    canuckistani says:

    One more reason to invest in nuclear fusion technology. Sooner, rather than later.

  24. 24
    newsouthzach says:


    What am I missing? This looks like basic physics FAIL. Unless there’s a lot of nuclear transmutation going on, the earth’s supply of helium won’t be changing appreciably any time soon.

    What you’re both missing is that helium atoms are too light to be trapped reliably by Earth’s gravitational pull. Briefly, gas molecules at room temperature have a certain distribution of kinetic energies (basically the energy of their motion whizzing around the room). Since kinetic energy is proportional to the mass and the square of the speed, lighter molecules go faster for the same amount of energy. Nitrogen, with a mass of 28, has an average thermal speed of about Mach 1 — so the average nitrogen molecule in the air you’re breathing is going by at slightly less than the speed of sound.

    Helium has a mass of 4, and therefore a much higher average speed. That doesn’t get you to escape velocity, but the thermal distribution has a fairly fat tail on the upper end. The result is that helium released into the atmosphere fairly quickly makes it out into space, never to be seen again. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

  25. 25
    tofubo says:

    let’s see:

    republican congress + the clenis = stupidity

    yup, my math is sound

  26. 26
    fasteddie9318 says:

    This is definitely bad news. Has anybody studied whether it could be possible to harvest helium from the decaying bodies of dead poor people? I’m sure many would gladly give their lives so that one of the Walton children could have a nice birthday party.

  27. 27
    Phoenician in a time of Romans says:

    FINALLY a post relevant to the title of this blog…

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