Helium: Do the Ends Justify the Means?


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Helium is a scarce element associated with radioactive decay. Copyright image by Decoded Science, all rights reserved.

Helium is a scarce element associated with radioactive decay. Copyright image by Decoded Science, all rights reserved.

Helium, the chemical element He, is a rarely-found earth element but is found throughout the Solar System.

What’s so great about Helium, and what do we use it for, anyway? (Other than birthday balloons.)

Abundant Helium

At least four reasons account for helium’s abundance:

(1) Helium is a stable and “non-reactive element.”

(2) Helium is a product of radiation processes.

(3) Helium is a component of the sun.

(4) Helium’s density is lighter than ambient air—allowing it to escape from the Earth’s gravity.

Helium’s inertness makes it important in commercialization – manufacturers use helium when cold conditions are important.

Discovery and Isolation of Helium: Culmination of Research

In 1868, scientific observations of the sun revealed the presence of the chemical element, helium. Although scientist wouldn’t isolate the element for almost thirty years, the observation spawned further investigations into how helium could associate with fire (the sun). So more surprising was the discovery of methane-helium mixtures, which meant that the element would be further associated with fire.

The discoveries, when taken in the context with oil wells at the beginning of the 20th century, led scientists to propose that helium was flammable. While the association between fire and helium would eventually be shown as false, the observations did not stop charlatans from promoting discoveries into financial opportunities.

People first sold helium wells as a way to get rich. Speculation in helium is a theme often seen in the last century. The price of helium varied erratically, from thousands of dollars to pennies per cubic foot within decades.

However, the first helium well in the U.S. became an opportunity for geochemists; their research would show that helium’s properties could be useful in areas of propulsion—both in dirigible ships and rocket ships.

Properties and Uses of Helium

Helium is an inert—or unreactive gas, and is among the most stable compounds. Helium is also incredibly light and possesses an ultra-low condensation temperature.

The extreme lightness of helium meant that aviation innovators could use it in dirigible airships. Dirigible decoys in wartime helped to save countless lives.

Another aspect of helium’s properties is its low condensation temperature—it turns from a gas to a liquid near -455 degrees Fahrenheit. (A full 487 degrees below the freezing point of ice.) Rocket scientists use liquid helium in rocket technology—helping to send people to the moon and back. Future uses of rocket technology using helium have not completely been ruled out.

There are few places on Earth known to possess stockpiles of helium. One of the first sites in which helium was found was near Amarillo, Texas. The site is known to possess large amounts of methane, as well.

Methane and Helium—Why Together?

Helium is made, or is a by-product of, radioactive decomposition of unstable elements. Uranium 238, a radioactive element, seeks to become less radioactive through releasing particles (one of which is a helium ion—or alpha particle). Radioactive particles (alpha particles) interact with their surroundings and become helium gas.

The reasons why methane and helium are found together are not completely clear. However, helium will not readily percolate through all of the earth’s mantle—oil deposits being one layer that is too dense for helium to seep past. Helium will then percolate into methane (normally associated with crude oil) and collect. It will otherwise, given sufficient pressure, escape the confines of the Earth’s mantle and blow past the atmosphere into space.

Can We Synthesize Helium from Uranium (Radioactive) Decay?

Mainstream scientists do not take the suggestion that science might somehow ‘synthesize’ Helium seriously, but in principle, it can be done. Unfortunately, the costs to both life and property are presently prohibitive. As nuclear catastrophes, such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, remind us—we have not learned to control nuclear technology.

However, take note that Uranium and Plutonium are, presently, not the only means by which helium could be generated. Radioactive decay occurs in other elements, as well. Scientists have proposed the generation of helium with the release of far fewer toxins (radioactive waste) from time to time, but no one has yet taken concrete, commercialized actions.

Molten Salt Reactors—Ends and Means?

Molten salt reactors, such as Lithium-Flouride-Thorium molten salt reactors, are one method by which scientists may tame the nuclear genie – and also generate helium in the same process. Thorium-232 is a weaker producer of alpha particles (or helium ions), but in principle may serve as one such source.

The molten salt reactor is a design from the early days of nuclear energy—it did not take hold simply because it was “passive” generator of energy. Moreover, the political decision to utilize Uranium/Plutonium over Thorium derived from Cold War politics-a brand of politics that seems less necessary now.

When drawing a comparison between hot Uranium and passive Thorium—the considerations that give Thorium the edge are that Thorium reactors do not produce the weapons-grade material that Uranium/Plutonium does. The Thorium reactor (although radioactive and toxic) produces far less waste, in the long run.

Cooling Towers of Nuclear Plant

The complexities of nuclear technology coupled with a fearful public may doom any new attempts to use radioactive sources for Helium generation. Image by US EPA.

It would seem that the production of Helium through Thorium process may eventually take hold—if science finds no other source of helium.

Nuclear Science to Produce Helium?

Presently, the public perception of anything nuclear would not justify the usage of Thorium-232, but the political landscape changes far more rapidly than climate dictates.

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