Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Helium-3 Supplies Running Low

Who cares?

Most people reading the title probably thought exactly that.

Helium? And what's that three mean? And so what if we're running out of it? Bear with me and I'll try to change your mind.

Helium-3 is an uncommon isotope of Helium that has two protons and a single neutron. It occurs naturally and can be produced through the beta decay of tritium, an isotope of hydrogen with three protons. Helium-3 is not radioactive and shares similar properties to the more common Helium-4, but at low temperatures (~2 K) does not undergo a phase transition, making it ideal to be used in cryogenics. As opposed to Helium-4, Helium-3 also very readily absorbs neutrons, having what is called a high 'absorption cross section' for neutrons.

This gives Helium-3 a broad range of applications, not only in the pure research, but also in things like magnetic resonance imaging of the lungs, missile guidance systems and nuclear detection technology used by the IAEA and the US Department of Homeland Security. Right now, all of that is in jeopardy as the US Department of Energy has rationed Helium-3 supplies, the Russians have ceased exporting it altogether and the US has canceled more shipments of the isotope to the IAEA. The price of Helium-3 has soared from $100 per litre to over $2000 per litre. [1]

Now, some of you still might be thinking "who cares?". But the capitalists out there are probably rubbing their hands with glee thinking "how can I get my hands on this Helium-3?".

You might remember that I told you it occurred naturally, and as a bi-product of tritium decay. Tritium is routinely produced in CANDU nuclear power plants, and OPG separates it out and stores it until it decays, treating it as 'waste'. The US estimates that over the next 10 years, these stockpiles could produce 130 000 litres of Helium-3 [1]. Even if we assume a price of only $1000/litre, that's still $130 million.

Imagine that, something that Canada has thought of as 'waste' could actually be worth hundreds of millions of dollars and could generate tens of millions of dollars a year in revenue. Now all we have to do is figure out how to safely get it out from where it is stockpiled, separated from the tritium and packaged off to market.

Like my father used to say, "Don't throw that away! That could be worth something someday!".

[1] "DOE begins rationing helium-3" Physics Today, June 2010


Bert said...

Sadly, I knew exactly what Helium-3 was.

Jerome Bastien said...

Apparently there's tons of it on the moon, and it could also be used for nuclear fusion.

Check out BBC Horizon's "Moon for Sale" episode.

Eric said...

Bert: Congrats!

Jerome: If I recall correctly, He-3 is considered 'better' for fusion but is impractical given its higher activation energy requirements. Tritium is considered to be more feasible.

As for getting He-3 off the moon...

Flugendorf said...

Tritium's more feasible *first*, and He-3 will be impractical for fusion until and unless we can manage the higher temperatures. Just tidying.

"As for getting He-3 off the moon..." I don't know how you were going to finish that sentence. Suggested: "... the price of it would have to be right." Which might be waiting on being able to use it for fusion, granted.

Denver said...

Aren't all helium supplies running low and on a trajectory to run out within the next few decades?

We better do something considering how much scientific community depends on its near Kelvin temperature properties. What will we use when we are out of Helium, eh?

Dr. Dan Woodard said...

The idea that we can make a profit by going to the moon to get helium-3 is one of the great urban legends of the space age. Obviously it can easily be produced on earth by the decay of tritium, and if it were needed for fusion (it's not, since 3He fusion is quite challenging) the amount would be minor compared to what is already used. If we needed more than we had available (unlikely since not all the tritium produced in the existing CANDU reactors is utilized) we could just build another CANDU reactor and get more power as a free bonus.
Unfortunately we have been so despirate to find a product of infinite value to justify the nearly infinite cost of human spaceflight.

Eric said...

Dan: Thanks. The only way I can imagine that going to the moon and getting He3 would be profitable is if the cost of space travel to the moon became so ridiculously cheap that even I could afford it.

Steve Aplin said...

very interesting piece. One minor correction: tritium has three nucleons (one proton and two neutrons), not three protons. If it had three protons it would be lithium.

Eric said...

Steve: Good point, what a silly mistake. Need to do more self review... :(

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