Then She Found Me...
links for 2008-04-27

Helium Mines

My problem--actually one of my many problems, but that's a long story--is that I don't understand where our supply of helium comes from. How is there helium trapped in the earth's crust that we can mine? Is it all from the decay of uranium?

Ah. Wikipedia comes through once again:

Helium - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: After an oil drilling operation in 1903 in Dexter, Kansas, U.S. produced a gas geyser that would not burn, Kansas state geologist Erasmus Haworth collected samples of the escaping gas and took them back to the University of Kansas at Lawrence where, with the help of chemists Hamilton Cady and David McFarland, he discovered that... 1.84% of the gas sample was helium. Far from being a rare element, helium was present in vast quantities under the American Great Plains, available for extraction from natural gas. This put the United States in an excellent position to become the world's leading supplier of helium.... World War I... 200 thousand cubic feet (5,700 m3) of 92% helium was produced in the program even though only a few cubic feet (less than 100 liters) of the gas had previously been obtained... the world's first helium-filled airship, the U.S. Navy's C-7, which flew its maiden voyage from Hampton Roads, Virginia to Bolling Field in Washington, D.C. on 1 December 1921.... National Helium Reserve in 1925 at Amarillo, Texas with the goal of supplying military airships in time of war and commercial airships in peacetime. Due to a US military embargo against Germany that restricted helium supplies, the Hindenburg was forced to use hydrogen... the reserve was expanded in the 1950s to ensure a supply of liquid helium as a coolant....

By 1995, a billion cubic metres of the gas had been collected... "Helium Privatization Act of 1996."...

For many years the United States produced over 90% of commercially usable helium in the world. Extraction plants created in Canada, Poland, Russia, and other nations produced the remaining helium. In the mid 1990s, A new plant in Arzew, Algeria producing 600 million cubic feet (1.7×107 m3) came on stream, with enough production to cover all of Europe's demand. Subsequently, in 2004–2006 two additional plants, one in Ras Laffen, Qatar and the other in Skikda, Algeria were built, but as of early 2007, Ras Laffen is functioning at 50%, and Skikda has yet to start up. Algeria quickly became the second leading producer of helium....

Nearly all helium on Earth is a result of radioactive decay. The decay product is primarily found in minerals of uranium and thorium, including cleveites, pitchblende, carnotite and monazite, because they emit alpha particles, which consist of helium nuclei (He2+) to which electrons readily combine. In this way an estimated 3.4 litres of helium per year are generated per cubic kilometer of the Earth's crust....

The world's helium supply may be in danger, according to Washington University in St. Louis chemist Lee Sobotka. The largest reserve is in Texas and would run out in eight years if consumed at the current pace.... [H]elium is extracted by fractional distillation from natural gas, which contains up to 7% helium.... 2005, approximately one hundred and sixty million cubic meters of helium were extracted from natural gas or withdrawn from helium reserves, with approximately 83% from the United States, 11% from Algeria, and most of the remainder from Russia and Poland. In the United States, most helium is extracted from natural gas in Kansas and Texas...

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