The Earth is running out of helium

The helium’s somewhat better behavior in terms of diffusion and embrittlement probably help as well.

Hydrogen’s reputation for scariness is a bit outsize(though being able to burn quite hot and with a nearly invisible flame under the right conditions is a skill to be approached with respect); but it is an atom small enough to treat what we think of as ‘solid barriers’ as more or less polite suggestions, to be obeyed on a statistical level but not too rigidly.

This is mostly a nuisance in industrial applications(hilarious hydrogen trick: merrily diffuse into ‘solid’ steel, and react with the carbon to form teeny pockets of methane within the iron structure, cracks 'em up every time!), or if you are trying to store the stuff; but it would also lead to party balloons that teach children important lessons about impermanence and loss even more quickly than the helium ones do.


From 2013:

Thanks to an obscure 1996 law, the Federal Helium Reserve is scheduled to shut its doors on Oct. 7, locking 10 billion cubic feet of helium underground and immediately shutting off 35 percent of the world’s helium supply.

Party-balloon enthusiasts would suffer, sure. But more importantly, a shortage would cause chaos in large swaths of the economy dependent on helium, from medical scanners to welders to manufacturers of optical fibers and LCD screens.

That law turned out to have large unintended consequences. For years, the reserve has been selling off its helium for below-market rates — something it has been required to do (see graphic). And, since the Federal Helium Reserve provides about one-third of the world’s helium each year, this has distorted the entire market. No one has incentive to conserve, recycle or find new sources of helium. Instead, we’ve been frittering it away. And that’s a bad idea, since helium is ultimately a non-renewable resource.

Either the demand for helium has exploded since 1992, or someone in Congress didn’t do the research.

This 2010 report may be of interest.
Selling the Nation’s Helium Reserve

Particularly bizarre is Appendix G:Executive Summary of The Impact of Selling the Federal Helium Reserve (the 2000 Report) which includes this choice tidbit:

Finding: Based on the information assembled for this report, the committee believes that the Helium Privatization Act of 1996 will not have a substantial impact on helium users.

So, between 2005 and 2010, the market changed dramatically.

We have already spent a Manhattan Projects worth of money on fusion.

Manhattan project cost equivalent in 2014 dollars: ($20Billion in 1996$ * 1.51) = $30Billion (2014$)
US spend on Fusion since 1953 in 2014 dollars: $29Billion (

While I appreciate the enthusiasm for helium, I would appreciate workable fusion for it’s secondary effect of energy production as well.


No more War Blimps for you!! ( or NMR or MRI’s either)

That is actually kind of depressing. $30 billion give or take? So then I looked up the Apollo program. $110 billion. Our defense budget is what, $660 billion and the middle East wars have cost in the neighborhood of $2 trillion?

Yeah, we are doing it wrong.


Looking forward to when I’m sitting on a pile of cash from the helium I produce from my nuclear reactor. :stuck_out_tongue:

In all seriousness, I think there may be a solution. Helium is produced by Uranium and thorium decay, (how do you think it ended up underground in the first place?) I wonder if there’s a way to produce industrial quantities of helium from alpha particle capture.

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Who’d ever smoke around a party-balloon?

A chemistry professor.
Or even more likely, a student. Especially a < 25 yearold student.


OK, I get it that hydrogen is dangerous. And an airship’s worth of hydrogen lifting gas would be more complicated, more expensive to safely handle than a helium filled airship. But is it really more dangerous than, say, jet fuel or gasoline, the way those explosives are handled today?

My steampunk dream of airships coming back isn’t going to happen with helium, there’s just not enough of it. But if hydrogen could be safely handled at industrial scales, maybe even with drone aircraft (at first)- I still think it could prove economically viable. Especially since jet fuel is no more renewable than helium is.

Solar powered hydrogen lifted drones, that electrolyse the rain that falls on them… Is this such a farfetched dream?

Way less, actually. Hydrogen goes up, up and away; a structure with vents under the ceiling can cope with quite some minor leaks, and you can have catalytic recombiners to deal with them if the structure has to be enclosed. Hydrocarbons from propane up hug the ground in gaseous state, especially when cold, and crawl to the cellars and other low-positioned places where they get stuck. Liquid ones tend to spill. A broken tank of such fuel will make a lake of fire. A broken tank of hydrogen will whoosh up. Even the Hindenburg had more problems with burning coating than with the hydrogen itself.

Hydrogen is already handled safely at industrial scales. Hydrogen-related safety lessons learned here:

Also, obligatory wikipedia link:

I would go for a slightly different approach - use a deliquescent salt to trap moisture from air. The tablets (of calcium chloride, typically) that are used for sucking moisture from e.g. wet cellars are exactly that. Have this in an electrolytic cell. (Possibly choose something that’s not chloride, to not produce chlorine as a byproduct. Or add something that will react it back to chlorides.) No need for rain, just enough humidity in air together with or followed by sufficient sunlight.


Hydrogen? Y’all are thinking too small…
I’m building a device that will fuse most of the atmospheric Nitrogen into Xenon – airships will then use the remaining nitrogen to provide lift.
We will also have awesome deep voices.


Amateur. I’m building an airship that uses dioxygen diflouride–i will rocket through the sky on a magnificent sled of death on my way to Valhalla!


Dioxygen diflouride? Like, oxidized flour? :stuck_out_tongue:

…it could actually work, if variants on powdered coal burners would be used. A biofuel it would be, too…

…why not chlorine trifluoride?

Put aluminum foil in a bottle of drain cleaner or lye (sodium hydroxide,) stretch the balloon over the neck until full.


The people who like mixing whippits and weed.

I actually know a guy who does that. I can’t believe he hasn’t asphyxiated yet.

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