Monday, September 10, 2018

Review of Helium: The Disappearing Element by Wheeler M. "Bo" Sears Jr.

Helium is rare on Earth - so rare that it was first discovered in the sun, not here on terra firma. In 1868, astronomers performing spectroscopy during a total solar eclipse noticed a yellow spectral line that did not correspond to any known elements.

It was not until 1895 that helium gas was isolated on Earth, by Scottish chemist William Ramsey who studied the gasses released by uranium ore when dissolved in acid. In a spectroscope, one of the gasses isolated exhibited the same yellow line as the mystery gas in the sun's chromosphere. Thus, helium was named after the Greek word for sun (ήλιος).

In the sun, and in all stars, helium is formed by the nuclear fusion of hydrogen. Four hydrogen nuclei form a helium-4 atom via a proton-proton chain reaction. There is a slight reduction in the mass of the product compared to the inputs, which corresponds to a release of energy.

This is not how helium is formed on Earth. Our terrestrial helium comes from the decay of radioactive elements in the crust, like uranium and thorium. (And as we have previously noticed, elements heavier than iron were created in supernovae. There is iron 60 from recent supernovae.)

Earnest Rutherford collected alpha particles from the radioactive decay radon in a glass and through spectroscopy discovered that they showed the same spectrum of helium. Alpha particles are helium nuclei! This led to the famous gold foil experiment and thence to a new, more accurate model of the atom.

The decay of uranium 238, which has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, produces the most helium atoms on its decay series which leads to a stable final isotope: lead 206. Once the decay series starts (with the U238 decaying to thorium 234 and releasing a helium nucleus), the rest of the decay takes a little over 300,000 years.

Earth has a lot of uranium and other radioactive elements decaying in the crust, all of which produce a helium nucleus when they go through an alpha decay on their decay series. One estimate is that a gram of uranium produces 100,000 atoms of helium per second. Given the quantity of radioactive material in the crust, Sears estimates something like 10^33 helium atoms are produced per year. That would be about 10^10 moles and at standard temperature and pressure a mole of gas is about one cubic foot. Ten billion cubic feet, or ten million MCF, which would be worth $2 billion at current prices.

A major problem is that helium, as a noble gas, is unable to form compounds and is continually lost into space because it cannot "hold on to" another element and, say, form a solid or a mineral. Think about how even lighter hydrogen would vanish too - except that it can pair with oxygen and make water, or carbon and make myriad other (extremely useful) compounds. Also, the helium that does not escape out into space might instead be trapped in the rock that contained the radioactive elements. Something has to happen to fracture the rock and release the helium: faulting, volcanism are ways that this can happen.

So the raw production is there. But the important things are the processes that gather the helium atoms closer to the surface and trap them there for us, without them escaping into space, which brings us to Helium: The Disappearing Element. At the time of publication in 2015, author Bo Sears had been exploring for helium for 15 years under Weil Helium LLC.

His book is basically the first principles of helium and the U.S. helium market: the history of its discovery as an element, its isolation from radioactive ores, identification in underground gas deposits, use as a lifting gas for lighter-than-air craft, evolution of other uses, production, and government regulation.

As we know, lighter-than-air craft were replaced by heavier-than-air ones (making for one of the few bad calls in John McPhee's career as a scientific observer). Airships were big and slow and had to fly low, where weather is a bigger problem.

Weather balloons are now the biggest use as a lifting gas, although lifting is no longer a very important use. One of the more important uses is in rocketry - helium is the only gas that will work to pressurize liquid hydrogen and oxygen rocket fuel tanks. Now the biggest use is superconductivity - cooling the superconducting magnets in medical MRI scanners and NMR spectrometers. You can see that and the other applications, for which many would not have any ready substitute. (Unlike silver!)

Helium is harder to trap in rock formations than other gasses like CO2, N2, and methane, which all have diameters an order of magnitude greater than the helium atom (about 15 times wider, to be precise).

But the keys are generation, migration, and entrapment. Commercial helium deposits vary by more than an order of magnitude in concentration, and the variation is explained by deficiency or relative absence of one or more of those key factors.

Four Corners gas was the highest concentration ever discovered. The "carrier gas" with which the helium migrated was CO2 from all the volcanic activity in northeastern Arizona. (Lots of volcanism - the youngest is Sunset Crater only ~1k years ago.) These helium deposits were found at shallow depths - he thinks they were all depleted.

The first non-US helium resource discovered was in Swift Current, SK. Another was in the Wood Mountain area. Sears says that Weil Helium was putting Wood Mountain into production.

Then under the Clinton administration, Congress passed the Privatization Act of 1996 to get the federal government out of the helium business. What quickly happened was that demand increased, supply from the Hugoton fell off, and rather than being a supply of last resort, draining the federal reserve at an unsustainably low price became the first resort.

The result was Helium Stewardship Act of 2013. The BLM started holding helium auctions in 2014. We’ve now just had the 2018 one. Prices have been rising.

Qatar and Algeria have been able to produce helium despite low concentration resources because of LNG business. They are liquifying gas anyway (unlike natural gas producers in the U.S.) which lowers the marginal cost of taking the helium out.

The overall pattern over the past century an alternation between gluts and supply crunches. Just like other commodity markets. Sometimes a supply has built up and a use - like military airships - has gone away. Then the price collapses. But recently demand has been growing, there are no obviously stupid uses (except a small amount of party balloons), and it was in the interest of the industrial gas companies to be able to buy helium ("molecules") from the BLM at an artificially low price. The result is that there is hardly anyone competent out there exploring for helium.

Sears' book points to some further information sources that look worthwhile. He seemed to get a lot of the early helium industry history from Helium: Child of the Sun. There was also a committee report from the Committee on the Impact of Selling the Federal Helium Reserve. Arizona has also published stuff to try to reignite interest in helium exploration there. (The big name there is Steve Rauzi with the Arizona Geological Survey.)


An investment in helium that can be extracted at a reasonable cost seems like a great, uncorrelated investment to make. The question is how to get the exposure. Here is what I think is an exhaustive list of companies that purport to be exploring for helium:

In Arizona the Oil & Gas Commission regulates helium exploration so you can read their meeting minutes and see what people are doing.

North American Helium files Form 45-106F1 in Canada when they raise money. They filed one in July saying they raised $12 million from accredited investors in the US. Their founder was quoted in Northern Miner with a useful observation about where helium comes (or doesn't come) from:
Like cobalt, which is produced as a by-product of nickel and copper production, helium is produced as a by-product of oil and gas production. "To get more cobalt you have to mine more nickel and copper, and to get more helium, you need more big, conventional oil and gas projects that happen to have a helium component, but frankly, most of those mega oil and gas projects aren't economic anymore because of the advent of shale gas," says Nicholas Snyder, founder of North American Helium. The shortage has been accelerated by the U.S. government's decision in the mid-1990s to sell off its helium stockpile.
This is the only helium company founder or executive which has been quoted in public with an intelligent remark. I guess that says something. Also a fundraising of $12 million makes them a much bigger player than almost all of the other companies listed above. All of the OTC/TSX listed players are smaller than this.


CP said...

Dimensional analysis problems for readers
*Double check Sears' estimate of the 10^33 atoms of helium produced every year, based on the amount of radioactive rocks in earth, the decay rate, and helium generation per decay.
*How big a piece of uranium ore rock would be needed to generate the amount of He that is used annually?
*CERN uses 120 tons of helium, how many mcf is that and what is it worth at $200/mcf?

CP said...

Helium & simultaneous invention

Unbeknownst to Janssen, a second scientist was also working on the same problem 5,000 miles away. English astronomer Joseph Norman Lockyer succeeded in viewing the solar prominences in regular daylight in October 1868. In stunning scientific synchronicity, the two scientists' papers arrived at the French Academy of Sciences on the same day, and today both men are credited with the first sighting of helium.

CP said...

587.49 nanometers

Solar prominences turned out to be mostly superheated hydrogen gas, but a very bright yellow line also stood out in the spectra. Some dismissed it as sodium, but Janssen realized that its wavelength, 587.49 nanometers, wasn't anywhere close to the right wavelength for sodium, or any of the other 27 elements known at the time.

CP said...


CHARLES G. GROAT, University of Texas at Austin, Co-Chair
ROBERT C. RICHARDSON, Cornell University, Co-Chair
ROBERT R. BEEBE, Independent Consultant
JOHN R. CAMPBELL, J.R. Campbell & Associates, Inc.
MOSES H. CHAN, Pennsylvania State University
JANIE M. CHERMAK, University of New Mexico
CAROL A. DAHL, Colorado School of Mines
THOMAS ELAM, National Aeronautics and Space Administration
ALLEN M. GOLDMAN, University of Minnesota
NORMAN E. HARTNESS, Independent Consultant
W. JOHN LEE, Texas A&M University
ALBERT MIGLIORI, National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory
DAVID C. MOWERY, University of California at Berkeley
MICHAEL PRATS, Michael Prats & Associates, Inc.
THOMAS A. SIEWERT, National Institute of Standards and Technology
MARK H. THIEMENS, University of California, San Diego