Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Fake Helium Crisis

From MR:
Is it possible that the relative price of helium will rise in nearly unprecedented fashion? Robert Richardson voices his opinion:
[The US government should] Get out of the business and let the free market prevail. The consequence will be a rise in prices. Unfortunately party balloons will be $100 each rather than $3 but we'll have to live with that. We will have to live with those prices eventually anyway.
He notes:
There is no chemical means to make helium. The supplies we have on Earth come from radioactive alpha decay in rocks. Right now it's not commercially viable to recover helium from the air, so we have to rely on extracting it from rocks. But if we do run out altogether, we will have to recover helium from the air and it will cost 10,000 times what it does today.
Apparently the government has a giant store of helium which it built up in the 1920s for dirigible-related emergency reserves and now it's selling it off, flooding the market and depressing the price--that's the intervention Richardson is talking about. This is a problem, but not a long term problem: the goal it so sell it all off by 2015. When the reserves are gone, the price will rise. In fact I bet that people are buying helium now and storing it to sell later, when those reserves are gone. So I'm not terribly concerned about a helium crisis mostly because of a link I followed in the MR article:
On Earth, Helium is found mixed with natural gas, but few producers capture it.
In other words when the price rises, companies will start extracting it. I think we all (squeakily) breathe easy.

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