Weird Parallels: Helium Waste and 19th-Century Logging

macys-parade-uncle-sam-spidermanBy Kowality Jesus


There is plenty of regret to go around about the wholescale waste of the immense virgin forests in pre-20th century America. These forests represented a cheap, high-quality building material to early Americans and a profitable export that only required rudimentary tools and a healthy portion of elbow grease to attain. Unfortunately, the citizens of 19th century America (a few of whom became very rich) did not exhibit the conscientiousness nor collective restraint to prevent from despoiling the vast majority of these invaluable and dignified forests. It simply did not occur to them (until Teddy Roosevelt spearheaded the conservation movement and hippies formed the environmental movement) that this timber resource is exhaustible, and once exhausted practically irreplaceable.

For example, during the early history of my home state of Michigan, it is said that a squirrel could traverse from Lake Huron to Lake Michigan without ever touching the ground.  Yet it took an incredibly small amount of time (mostly 1870-1890) for men with hand-drawn felling saws to systematically evacuate every virgin tree on the entire peninsula. The scale and speed of this relentless logging machine still baffles me to this day. In fact, the harvest was so unimaginably great that a profitable industry exists today of recovering the very small percentage of fine old-growth logs that sank during transport and have rested on the bottom of the Great Lakes for 150 years.

Imagine, if you would, that we had saved some portion of these magnificent, centuries-old trees until today. What would a good violin luthier do these days for some now-rare, quality old-growth tone wood? How impressive would Michigan’s tourism industry be if we had thought to save more than just a few monument virgin trees? We can never know.

Yet we find numerous analogs to this 19th-century state-of-mind today. One remarkable example is our prodigious waste of what is a very finite and valuable resource, helium. Helium and its fellow noble gas, argon, both naturally occur on Earth because of radioactive decay (argon as a decay product of potassium-40, helium as an alpha particle from the decay of various radioactive substances inside the earth, mostly thorium). Interestingly, argon composes about 1% of the Earth’s atmosphere whereas helium is only found in trace quantities. This is because helium is SO light that, once released, it actually floats completely out of the atmosphere, which means once it is extracted from its underground home (through a natural gas well) it must be contained or it will literally disappear into outer space during the next solar storm.

But why is helium valuable, you say? Interesting question. As well as being widely used in arc-welding, manufacture of computer chips, and fiber optics, helium finds applications in ultra-low temperature measurements and experiments (since liquid helium is the coldest liquid there is at 4 degrees Kelvin), and is 2nd to none. Liquid helium is used to cool the magnets in MRI scanning, NMR spectroscopy, and a variety of other low-temperature scientific experiments (96 metric tons of it are used in the particle accelerator at CERN, and 120 metric tons were used to launch the Saturn V rocket). In fact, universities and scientific laboratories have large and expensive apparatuses to recycle the copious amounts of helium that is regularly used in scientific experimentation.

The United States actually has a National Helium Reserve based near Amarillo, Texas which was established in 1925 as a source for airships in a time of war. It expanded during the Cold War as a resource for the Space Race and other scientific research (unfortunately we still live in an era of our nation where technological advancements are almost invariably spearheaded by military research). By 1995 the reserve had accumulated not only 450 million tons of helium but also $1.4 billion in debt, so congress decided to offset the liability through completely selling off the helium by 2015 and privatizing the helium production industry. The Strategic Helium Reserve being the only helium reserve in the world, this rather abrupt selling-off had the effect of greatly reducing the price.

As happened in the 19th century when huge forests were being felled as quickly as possible, a glut of supply and a cheap price creates the natural propensity for wanton waste of a product. Even though party balloons are the most visible and frivolous waste of helium, (at some dollar stores one can purchase a balloon WITH helium for $1) they only account for about 8% of overall consumption. The larger users in industry currently have no incentive to purchase helium recycling systems and collect the helium they use, because it is not currently necessary, or profitable, to do so. More fundamentally, with no government organization stockpiling it, natural gas producers here and around the world have no price incentive to capture helium which naturally occurs in some deposits at a concentration of 1-3% and is not difficult to refine. Most natural gas producers currently vent their helium into the atmosphere. According to Nobel laureate Robert Coleman Richardson, in order to reasonably protect the supply of helium for current and future high-tech applications, the price should be 20 times greater than it currently is.

Much like old-growth forests, we will never truly run out of helium because it is constantly being produced by alpha-decay 0f radioactive particles inside the earth, though at an incredibly slow rate. Thus, it will become progressively less and less accessible, and eventually make industrial applications and invaluable scientific research more difficult to execute without enormous funding. So in other words, the 1996 US congress via Public Law 104-273 helped America go from “hero” to “zero” yet once again.

This entry was posted in Consumerism, culture, Economics, Environment, History, Science, society, Technology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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