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Helium: The next hot commodity

Helium: The next hot commodity

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Buy your party balloons now, price may surge. Helium vital to blimps, rockets, MRIs. Could replace water as nuclear reactor coolant. But we're running out. Bring on fusion - helium's its byproduct.

Like this balloon, the price of helium is now rising. Photo: Cameron Balloons.

The next hot commodity could be hot air.

Helium, used in everything from blimps and hot air balloons to MRI scanners, particle colliders, scuba gear, semiconductor manufacturing and rockets, is in short supply. Bad news, considering another potential for the inert gas: it could serve as a safer and more effective coolant for nuclear reactors, replacing water used in conventional reactors such as those that melted down at Fukushima.

The helium shortage made news about a year-and-a-half-ago. Now, Canadian stock market advisor Stockhouse suggests it could become "the next hot commodity." Writing on its website, the company notes,  "Helium prices have already doubled over the last five years. And as U.S. reserves are depleted and supply dwindles, helium prices will continue to rise."

That's an understatement compared to observations by Cornell University physics professor Robert Richardson, who said in 2010 that the price of helium should rise by between 20-and 50-fold.

"Professor Richardson also believes that party balloons filled with helium are too cheap, and they should really cost about $100," the UK's Independent wrote at the time.

A big reason why we're running out of helium is that for historic U.S. policy reasons (click the links above for the amazing details), it has been cheap. So cheap, in fact, that we've had no incentive to recycle it. As the Independent pointed out, "NASA makes no attempt to recycle the helium used to clean its rocket fuel tanks."

That's a no-no because, "Once helium is released into the atmosphere in the form of party balloons or boiling helium, it is lost the Earth forever," Richardson noted.

U.S. policy has changed recently, and market forces now drive the price, which should keep rising like a, er, balloon. Among the reasons: supply and demand. Not only are we not recycling helium, we haven't been producing it. Helium has been stockpiled as a byproduct of natural gas production. The largest store of it has been in a disused gas field in Amarillo, Texas, a place known as the "helium capital of the world" (now you know where to go if you want to raise your voice to Mickey Mouse pitch).

"The fact remains that helium suppliers are experiencing a reduction in production and only one new plant is on pace to come online in the United States over the next three years," says Stockhouse. The story also points out that the U.S. represents 39 percent of  all helium consumption and is the world's largest supplier, but it could lose its supply lead as Russia, Algeria and Qatar ramp up production to serve China and other countries.

I'll suggest another future source of helium: Nuclear fusion. Helium is a byproduct of the fusion process. Like in the sun - helium is named for Helios, the Greek god of the sun - helium emerges when hydrogen isotopes bond. That should provide an extra incentive for the scientists and venture capitalists that are developing fusion reactors. As I've noted on SmartPlanet and in my new report Emerging Nuclear Innovations: Picking winners in the race to reinvent nuclear energy, a number of fusion start-ups including General Fusion, Helion Energy and Tri-Alpha could commercialize a fusion reactor much sooner than the proverbial "30 years from now" time frame.

Here's another nuclear incentive: Helium is a more effective coolant than water, so it can allow nuclear reactors to operate at higher and more efficient temperatures. It is also a safer coolant than water because it is inert, unlike water's hydrogen, which is explosive. Several companies are developing helium-cooled nuclear reactors, including General Atomics' fast neutron reactor, and Q-Power's pebble bed reactor, all part of a movement away from conventional nuclear.  The U.S. Department of Energy gives priority to gas-cooled reactors within its Generation IV Nuclear Systems Initiative.

One way or another, it's time to produce some more helium, and to recycle it. Meanwhile, stock up on your party balloons. No telling what they might cost next year.

Helium atom image: pss.scdsb.on.ca

More helium lift:

Alternative  nuclear on SmartPlanet:

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure