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The Helium Conundrum (5)


lunar-miningTHE strategic value of helium first became apparent during World War I (1914-1918)—which erupted barely a decade after the Dexter episode. A U.K. scientist proposed that lighter-than-air flying craft (dirigibles) be inflated with the inert gas, instead of highly flammable hydrogen.

But the British, failing to find a helium field, dropped the project. Then, when the U.S.A. entered the war, the Bureau of Lands and Mines broached the idea to Army and Navy officials, who deemed the project feasible. The Geological Survey was asked to study helium sources.

In his 1921 report, Helium-Bearing Natural Gas, Rogers wrote that “a [dirigible] filled with hydrogen is very liable to be set afire, either by atmospheric electricity, by sparks from its power plant, or by any one of numerous accidents which may occur even…in its hangar”.

Rogers’ remarks proved prophetic. In 1937, the arriving German passenger airship, Hindenburg, burst into flames, with extensive loss of life, while mooring at Lakehurst, New Jersey (U.S.A.).

U.S. helium policy was indirectly responsible. The gas had been declared “a critical war material,” notes the website, How Products Are Made.Com. “Production was tightly controlled, and exports were curtailed”.

Just two years before the Hindenburg disaster, it reports, the legislature had passed the first Helium Conservation Act, prohibiting the sale of the gas to nongovernmental users—leaving dirigible operators no choice, except to use hydrogen.

Restrictions ended after the explosion, enabling helium to replace hydrogen globally, as a lifting gas for lighter-than-air craft. But the Cold War and the Space Race followed World War II: And the U.S. government continued to factor helium into its strategic gamesmanship.

In 1960, Congress voted another bill into law, creating the huge Federal Helium Reserve at the Cliffside gas field near Amarillo, Texas. According to Alex Webb & Francois De Beaupuy, in Bloomberg Business, it covers 13,900 acres and once held 30 percent of the world’s processed helium.

The U.S.A. is both the world’s biggest supplier of the gas and its most voracious consumer. Cliffside, therefore, was a move to ensure the country’s own un-interrupted access to this strategic resource, as well as a mechanism to maintain stability in the global market.

“Amarillo’s importance to stabilizing helium prices,” Webb and De Beaupuy wrote in July, 2014, “showed last year, when production in Algeria stopped and the U.S. failed to push through legislation to release more of the Amarillo reserves quickly enough”.

The price of Algerian helium increased from $5.54 per cubic meter in 2009 to $10.24 in March, 2014. But the Algerian anomaly was merely a tremor. In 1996, the Clinton administration ushered yet another Helium Act through the legislature—one many pundits fear, could trigger major tectonic upheavals.

“In 1996,” Mark Peplow recalled, in Chemistry World two years ago, “US lawmakers decided that the government should get out of the helium business, and ordered the sale of the [Cliffside] stores to pay off the facility’s accumulated debts of $1.3 billion”.

Some analysts believe selling gas cheaply from the Reserve, may have served as a disincentive for producers to invest in additional helium sources. “Without the reserve,” Peplow laments, “there is not enough production capacity elsewhere in the world to meet current needs”.

Demand for helium is growing, at five to six percent a year and is expected to double by 2030: When, according to Russia’s Gazprom, consumption will reach 238–312 million cubic meters, while production lags behind at 213–238 million cubic meters.

“This means,” it projects, “that the world will be confronted with [a] deficit of helium. Production will need to be increased considerably in order to meet the shortage”.

To be continued.

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