back to article US gov's emptying of vast Texan helium-tank dome 'wrong'

A hefty sci/tech body has said that the USA's current policy of selling off its enormous reserves of helium gas - which it keeps stored in a gigantic subterranean dome reservoir in Texas - is all wrong. This is partly because the plan is cocking up the global helium market, and partly because helium is vital for many activities …


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  1. Ted Treen

    I wonder....

    Do the guys who work there go home every day sounding like Tweetie Pie?

  2. Bilgepipe

    You forgot...

    ..the most important use of Helium - making your voice sound funny.

  3. GrahamT

    Helium is not the only inert gas

    It seems many of the applications could be done with any inert gas (e.g. cleaning rocket tanks) where Helium's lighter than air characteristics are less important.

    I would think that with the demise of incandescent light bulbs, there must be a surfeit of Argon in the world that could be used for these tasks.

  4. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge

    Probably not economists

    So... they should sell it for more, except when they sell it for less. And, there's companies with access to the helium that have the equipment to refine and distribute it (that presumably compete with each other), AND other sources making up ~50% of sales, but there's no market. I have the feeling the NAS are not economists (yeah yeah, I know it's the National Academy of *Scientists*...)

    That said, it is a real shame that there's no attempts to find further helium, attempts to recover helium when possible, and that this helium isn't extracted at a rate that maximizes the amount that can be removed (does that mean extracting it faster or slower?)

    1. DavCrav Silver badge

      I think they meant...

      "...AND other sources making up ~50% of sales, but there's no market. I have the feeling the NAS are not economists..."

      I think what they meant by 'there is no market for helium' is that there is no functioning free market of supply and demand, not that nobody wants it. I might be wrong.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Helium market

    Don't forget the market for insanely large balloon versions of cartoon characters and the like. IIRC, Macy's (as in the department store) was the second largest US consumer of He after the US military, due to the Thanksgiving Day Parade.

    Of course, I believe I learned that factoid in about 1988, so it could be outdated. Plus, it came from whatever commentator was covering the parade that particular morning... they could have had more He between their ears than the giant Snoopy balloon.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    not the only inert gas

    but a very useful one in scientific instruments.

    It's inert and has very small "molcules". Neon is rarer and more expensive at the moment

    our lab "burns" it off at a rate of a large cylinder of high grade 99.99% pure every month.

  7. Seanmon

    So it's underground then?

    A couple nights work with a digger, and we could produce the world's biggest fart noise?

    Make it so!

  8. TRT Silver badge

    I'm surprised

    I thought the market for helium would be quite buoyant.

    1. Doc Spock


      Sorry, that went right over my head...

  9. Tom Paine

    US airship disasters

    The loss of the Shenandoah and the other two are strangely unknown to many, although the epic-ness of the fail rivals the R101, Hindenberg and other popular instances of the airship fail. Far more than you ever, etc:

    Great Friday night reading for those unfortunate geeks stuck at home staring at their Star Trek DVDs. Which is all of us, right? right???

  10. ElReg!comments!Pierre

    Atomic fusion reactor?

    No-one investigate new sources? I think that's wrong. If things go according to plan, we should have hydrogen fusion reactors within the next couple decades. Appart from rather clean leccy, these produce a fair amount of helium. Probably not enough to be relied on as the only source, but it should help.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Helium molecules?

    When I was at school Helium was an an inert gas so it was happy to float around in atomic form. The term molecule referred to a compound of two or more atoms.

    If that's not shocking enough, you refer to "small helium molecules", hinting at the possibility of "large helium molecules". Would that be large as in 3 atoms or large as in, say, 60 atoms, a sort of Helium Football? (Now that would be a short game).

  12. Steen Hive
    Thumb Up


    "Bush's dome is full of inert gas"


  13. Jonathan McColl
    Thumb Up

    Thanks Lewis

    I hadn't known any of that stuff (and nor will it make me change my lifestyle any) but it sounds important and I wonder why the Congress didn't know any of it despite having the biggest library in the world outside Google or maybe they'd not have decided to dispose of the helium.

    Of course, maybe the dome's been leaking since Petra came to Blue Peter and the guys minding it want to pretend that they've deliberately got rid of the contents when an auditor discovers it's empty ...

  14. hayseed

    Not Any Inert Gas

    The melting point of hydrogen is 14K

    The melting point of oxygen is 54K

    The melting point of neon is 24K

    The melting point of argon is 83K

    So, using argon or neon, as soon as this gas is pumped into a hydrogen tank, it condenses

    into a low-volume liquid. No more hydrogen gets to the engine, the rocket flames out, and it

    makes a major unplanned change in direction.

  15. hayseed


    Oxygen — Boiling Point: 90.20 K

    Hydrogen — Boiling Point: 20.28 K

    Sorry - I should have used boiling points for the engine tanks. So argon and neon

    freeze instead.

    1. Rolf Howarth


      Very interesting, makes sense, but could have done with more explanation. What you're saying is that to flush liquid oxygen and hydrogen you need something which stays a gas at the cold temperatures used to keep hydrogen liquid, ie. it still has to be a gas below 20.28K, which helium is because it's boiling point is 4K, is that right? What affect does pressurizing the container have?

  16. Mike Richards Silver badge


    The Graf Zeppelin was always planned to be filled with hydrogen, it was only after the R101 burned that Zeppelin began considering helium as a lifting gas. Had the Graf been filled with helium she would not have been able to make transAtlantic flights. Zeppelin even cancelled the planned LZ128 for the same reason and began work on the much bigger LZ129 Hindenburg which would have been viable with helium.

    Zeppelin did not have formal negotiations with the American government about using helium in Hindenburg, instead relying on their chief Hugo Eckener's close friendship with Roosevelt to try and release the gas. However, the President's hands were tied by Congress passing the Helium Control Act which forbade the large scale export of the gas. Hindenburg was redesigned at a late stage as a hydrogen-inflated ship (she would have originally had two sets of gas cells, the main ones filled with helium for lift, the second filled with hydrogen acting as anti-ballast which would be vented to offset the loss in weight from burning fuel).

    Hindenburg was inflated with hydrogen on her first season, Zeppelin were confident they could handle the gas safely - they had never had a hydrogen fire on any of their civilian ships - and the airship performed superbly. During the winter of 1936/37 she was laid up and her accommodation expanded to take advantage of the greater lift from hydrogen. She returned to the TransAtlantic route in the spring of 1937 and burned shortly afterwards.

    It was only after the Lakehurst disaster that the Zeppelin company approached the US for an export license for helium to inflate Graf Zeppelin II - the Hindenburg's near twin. The ship had been redesigned to accommodate helium, including advanced water recovery systems that would reduce the need for venting gas. Once again Eckener appealed to Roosevelt and was given permission to have the gas. However, Harold Ickes blocked the export in retaliation for Germany's annexation of the Rhineland.

    Graf Zeppelin II was inflated with hydrogen but never made a commercial flight, the US having blocked any hydrogen-filled ships from their territory. She spent a short life on propaganda missions for the Nazis and trying to ferret out the secrets of Britain's radar chain. The original Graf Zeppelin was deflated and turned into a museum. Both were scrapped early in World War 2.

  17. John Smith 19 Gold badge


    In principle liquid nitrogen (BP at 1 atm 77k)would work out pretty well for *most* bulk rocket related activiites. Inerting tanks and plumbing before liftoff, chill down etc. However the US (read NASA) is wedded to hydrogen, and cooling down the hardware with *anything* but helium will result in frozen cryogen clogging stuff up. There is also the mass argument. A space shuttle large He tank weighs 270Lb but carries 30 lbs of He. Holding the same number of moles of Nitrogen that would be about 210lbs of N2. Most other launch vehicles (modern US ICBMs use solid fuels) use Helium as well.

    Besides if its a cost+ contract you gain *no* points for loosing payload carrying ability and lowering costs.

    Argon is probably the cheapest inert gas as it's sold in volume for welding. No go for Hydrogen apps and even heavier than Nitrogen.

  18. Anonymous Coward

    Helium is

    It's MON-atomic., meaning it floats around as single atoms., making it leak through the tiniest of holes in anything,

    Hence it's used as a leak detection gas - especially in critical things.

    Also no more Helium - no more MRI's etc., no more Hadron colliders... and no more stupid and wasteful party balloons....

    There are some welding process's that go better with helium.

    No more ULTRA cold 1/millionth of a degree of absolute zero quantum scientific experiements....

    So unless someone cranks up a fusion reactor ASAP and generates a heap of it - we are fucked without it.

    As it stands, it should be declared a critical resource, and be carefully stored, distributed and recycled., to make what we do have. last almost forever.... well at least until the total collapse of our civilisation.... back to the stone age; which is only a few wars and plagues away.

  19. ratfox

    Cheap shot

    That's the problem with Helium... If it was just oil, the US would just burn everything as fast as possible, but since Helium does not burn, they have to get rid of this non-renewable resource SOMEhow...

    Mine's with Evil Merkins for dummies in the pocket...

  20. Juillen 1

    Undersea exploration..

    Helium is one of the primary gasses for doing deep dives.. Without helium, more exotic gasses will have to be used (hydrogen is being looked at, and some bright souls are doing deep dives using hydrogen instead of nitrogen, but apparently, you need to avoid anything flammable for about 24-36 hours while you off gas the hydrogen!).

  21. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    @Julian 1

    Hydrogen should be quite a bit cheaper than Helium. However I could see safety being a real issue on this. Helium can leak out of fairly small gaps but Hydrogen can diffuse through metal walls. It would probably take a buildup in a confined, unvented space over time to get enough to actually explode.

    Not a happy prospect on an oil rig.

  22. Robin Szemeti

    You forgot lasers!

    CO2 lasers actually use far more Helium than they do CO2 or Nitrogen ... I know the little tiny 100W sealed tubes dont use much .. but the big industrial multi-kilo-watt fast axial flow lasers happily chew through a bottle or two a week.

    No more helium, no more invisible death rays!!

  23. Cyfaill

    Facts about airships like Graf Zeppelin

    I worked with one of the Airframe design people for this airship.

    And to some degree the LZ129 Hindenburg.

    The use of Helium was infeasible for either, period.

    It is not just the difference between an atomic gas and a molecular gas although that is a hint.

    (the gas bags on both ships would have been a sieve in regards to Helium)

    It is the fact that altitude changes to both air density and especially for landing are fundamentally different... Helium airships recant the gas because of its non replenishment and use pumps to “save” it, taking lots of time to pump down the gas to change altitude. (that is fundamental to the crash factor risk in time to change the lift ratio)

    And hydrogen Airships are designed to dump the gas because it is fast and helps in quick adjustments in attitude and altitude. The designers understood speed is critical.

    The hydrogen is easily replaced by quick regeneration via process.

    It is also noteworthy that the designers of these airships really did not like the idea of helium because of the weight and equipment in addition to the slower performance risking crashes, combined with the belief in their technology.

    The Graf Zeppelin was retired after flying over a million miles and 590 voyages without serious crash and was de-constructed for its “exotic” metals by the scummy Nazis.

    All other propaganda elements by feuding governments are just that.

    That campaign of words suited both sides in a mutually beneficial war of words...


    Those mean Americans won't sell us a good safe gas, so we are stuck with the oh so dangerous hydrogen....


    Those rotten Nazis don't deserve our wonderful safe gas helium, so we won't let them have it...

    The fact is science.... Hydrogen Airships and Helium Airships are not interchangeable without massive redesigns to both, hence infeasible.

  24. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Has to be said

    US govt sells Helium at fire sale prices.

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