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Polywell, ITER and the Helium Supply

Posted: Wed Feb 13, 2008 12:01 am
by Isochroma
Some days ago, in the darkness of night I wrote an article, but couldn't post it. Below is the cleaned version.

On Helium and the Fusion Reactor

It seems that access to an ongoing supply of economic Helium is going to be very critical for both the ITER/Tokamak and the Polywell Inertial Electrostatic Containment system, and other designs. It cools the powerful coils which are necessary for the operation of the world's most well-developed and best fusion reactor designs. Presupposing that at least one design achieves sustained net energy production and is commercialized, Helium may be required in large quantities, on an ongoing basis. Unfortunately, liquid helium supplies are running out.

Helium Supplies Endangered, Threatening Science And Technology ... 093943.htm

Two quotes from the article:

"When we use what has been made over the approximate 4.5 billion of years the Earth has been around, we will run out," Sobotka said. "We cannot get too significant quantities of helium from the sun — which can be viewed as a helium factory 93 million miles away — nor will we ever produce helium in anywhere near the quantities we need from Earth-bound factories. Helium could eventually be produced directly in nuclear fusion reactors and is produced indirectly in nuclear fission reactors, but the quantities produced by such sources are dwarfed by our needs." (ed: the 'needs' referred to are not tomorrow's commercial fusion reactors, but only today's modest uses in experimental reactors, balloons, etc.)

"The price of liquid helium is about $5 per liter, having gone up more than 50 percent over the past year because of what Sobotka calls "conventional" economics. He cited the withdrawal of some companies from the marketplace, and the emergence of others that are not yet in production, as the driving force behind higher prices, and (as yet) a scarcity of the element."

Now, they're talking about supplies for the demands of today, which are trivial compared to the requirement if Tokamak/Polywell were to provide even a third of the world's current energy needs.

Sadly, even if the design produces lots of net energy, if it doesn't make all of its Helium needs, then it will not have a long-term future. The He net-loss reactor will need an ongoing infusion of new Helium in order to continue operating; recovery rate (never mind total supply) of the element is beginning to decline.

Helium supplies are already running out, with only today's small-scale experimentation and other commercial users, never mind tomorrow's thousands of reactors required to fulfill humanity's energy needs. Even if the loss rate over time inside a reactor is small, just the initial charge for so many reactors may deplete the remaining stocks.

The affordability of Helium today is only a byproduct of its status as byproduct of fossil fuel extraction. As we all know, fossil fuel, especially oil, is already in decline worldwide, and its decline is steepening.

As each oil well's production reaches a point where it is not economic to pump more oil, that well's Helium contribution is gone too: whatever remains will be trapped when pumping is stopped, because it is not economic to get the helium on its own. Most of these He-yielding wells are located in Texas, which is on the steep decline side of its Hubbert curve.

Even if in the future the price rises high enough to make its recovery economic, the cost of energy to extract it may make it entropically uneconomic to harvest, depending on reactor yield. Even then, reserves are still limited on an absolute basis and losses to the atmosphere permanent, which means a future pinch of extinction for the dependent systems. To quote once again from the above article:

"Scientists haven't even approached mining helium out of the air because costs are too prohibitive."

Apart from a mission to the Moon to collect it, the future of the world's remaining, economically-accessible helium is falling in proportion with the fossil fuel pumping industry's production, in a never-ending downward curve. The majority of the world's remaining supply is located in less than desireable regions, ex:

"Sobotka believes that Russia will be the world's major source of helium in 30 years."

This is not inspiring news, considering how Russia has already behaved with regards to its fossil fuel exports - nationalization and tighter state control. Do we really want to be dependant on one or two (the US has the second largest supply at present, according to the article) nations for a gas which is hoped to be in so many future fusion reactors generating energy worldwide?

If you could for a moment, imagine the resource wars yet to come, fought over the remaining depleted Helium supplies on an Earth at the tail end of its fossil-fuel Hubbert curve.

Ironically, the very decline that made so critical fusion's development, may first throttle and finally choke to death any chance of its implementation on a scale which would satisfy the world's energy needs.

There are only two escape routes visible at the moment, neither mutually exlusive:

1. The device's own production of Helium, which if sufficient can make the net requirement for ongoing resupply zero.

2. The discovery of a vast supply of cheap helium, with cheap being the operative word. Expensive energy is almost as bad as none at all, and it is cheap fossil fuel energy that built this world and only energy of a similar cheapness will maintain it, never mind allow it to be expanded.

If there is enough helium for a while and net-helium-loss reactors are successful and commercialized, the price of Helium will be driven up, making it much costlier for other researches and industries which use it, including the development of new reactor designs of any flavor that use this gas.

A sad requiem for any device that requires helium to run, loses it over time, and cannot produce the stuff on its own at a rate sufficient to replace loss, all cycles included.

If reactors are net He producers, the requirement for priming will limit the rate of reactor rollout, and this limit is getting tighter with each passing year.

Posted: Wed Feb 13, 2008 12:25 am
by Isochroma
Helium Diffusion

Wikipedia: Helium

"For similar reasons, and also due to the small size of its molecules, helium's diffusion rate through solids is three times that of air and around 65% that of hydrogen.[1]"

"Because it diffuses through solids at a rate three times that of air, helium is used as a tracer gas to detect leaks in high-vacuum equipment and high-pressure containers, as well as in other applications with less stringent requirements such as heat exchangers, valves, gas panels, etc."

Any device which uses helium, especially at the extreme pressure needed to make it a liquid, will suffer He loss due to diffusion through pipes and other containment structures into the atmosphere. This is one of the contemplated loss mechanisms.

Posted: Wed Feb 13, 2008 12:28 am
by Isochroma
Helium Extraction

Wikipedia: Helium

Modern extraction

For large-scale use, helium is extracted by fractional distillation from natural gas, which contains up to 7% helium.[31] Since helium has a lower boiling point than any other element, low temperature and high pressure are used to liquefy nearly all the other gases (mostly nitrogen and methane). The resulting crude helium gas is purified by successive exposures to lowering temperatures, in which almost all of the remaining nitrogen and other gases are precipitated out of the gaseous mixture. Activated charcoal is used as a final purification step, usually resulting in 99.995% pure, Grade-A, helium.[32] The principal impurity in Grade-A helium is neon. In a final production step, most of the helium that is produced is liquefied via a cryogenic process. This is necessary for applications requiring liquid helium and also allows helium suppliers to reduce the cost of long distance transportation, as the largest liquid helium containers have more than five times the capacity of the largest gaseous helium tube trailers.

In 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.

Diffusion of crude natural gas through special semipermeable membranes and other barriers is another method to recover and purify helium. Helium can be synthesized by bombardment of lithium or boron with high-velocity protons, but this is not an economically viable method of production.

Natural Gas Source

Natural gas peak

The effects of natural gas peak are relatively localized. This is due to the enormous economic and energetic expense of liquefying and transporting natural gas as a compressed liquid. Both European and North American natural gas production have already peaked, so these regions are facing the extra severity of a dual energy crisis.

David Pursell speaks with Darley about Natural Gas

Q1. Can you tell us how you see the present Natural Gas situation in North America?

JD: Tell us, how do you see the situation with U.S. natural gas?

DP: One of the issues with the U.S. or North American gas market is that it has changed dramatically from 3-4 years ago, in that 3-4 years ago there was lots of construction of gas-fired or planned construction that ultimately materialized gas-fired power generation units, both fine cycle baseload units and simple cycle peakers that are used mainly in the summertime.

Why natural gas? It’s cheap, it’s clean environmentally; on the power side, its units are lower capital costs, gas is plentiful, we’re not importing gas from anywhere other than Canada, our best friend to the north, etc. If you want to grow supply, all you do is drill more wells.

Where we are today is a much a different picture where we have figured out pretty quickly that we can’t drill our way into more supply. We found that out in dramatic fashion in late 2000 and early 2001. We have a situation where our neighbor to the north, Canada, is probably going to experience gas production decline in 2003 for maybe the first time in a very, very long time, and the outlook is for further decline in 2004. If you extrapolate that, Canadian production will be down, then imports from Canada to the U.S. should be down as well.

When we look into Mexico, four years ago people expected Mexico to be a net supplier of gas to the U.S., that picture again has dramatically changed, where Mexico is now a net consumer of U.S. gas, on the order of ¾ billion cubic feet a day. In fact, the most recent data which expands the second third quarter of 2002 shows that we shipped on a net basis more gas to Mexico than the U.S. imported via LNG.

JD: In case anyone listening doesn’t know, LNG stands for liquefied natural gas.

DP: So LNG imports are not even offsetting U.S. exports of gas to Mexico. That’s a materially different situation today than we found ourselves in. The U.S. natural gas industry is actually in fairly tenuous ground because if you can’t supply demand growth, then you can’t have demand growth. It’s relatively simple economics.

JD: So what will happen to demand, then?

DP: You still build these power plants and the electricity sector to the end user of that power is probably less price sensitive than the average guy, so to the marginal consumer of gas is the industrial sector – your petrochemical plants, your glass plants, your rubber plants, paper, paper products, lumber, those folks who in a relatively weak economy, as we have now, probably have very little margin to begin with, and then we throw significantly increased higher input energy cost at them. So some of those guys are going to go away. Petrochemical plants are going to go elsewhere. That trend has happened and the higher gas prices go, the more accelerated the pace you’ll see over the next number of years.

Q2. What is the Outlook for Natural Gas Situation in North America for the Rest of the Year?

JD: How do you see the North American natural gas outlook for this year?

DP: When you look at the gas market, gas storage is the buffer where in the wintertime demand exceeds supply so we pull gas out of storage to meet incremental winter heating demand. In the summertime there’s more supply than demand and gas is injected in the ground in anticipation of increased winter heating demand. So the injection season is very important to make sure there’s enough gas in the ground in front of winter. We think there’s certain minimum storage requirements that need to be filled before winter starts. Our sense was that even before this winter where we modeled, conservatively, a relatively warm winter, our view was because of the issues with supplies, supply declining and imports likely to decline, that there was no room for industrial demand expansion in 2003. The industrial demand is roughly 20 – 25% of the total demand, depending on how you count it. Probably 25 is a good number to use. Where are we now?

Winter has been colder so we’ve used more gas in storage or we’ve used more of the surplus, if you will. When we’ve finished the winter, there will be a bigger need or bigger demand to fill storage during the summer injection season. In fact, as we run our supply and demand model, if we keep industrial demand static, you can’t get there. You can’t fill storage. So what does that imply? That implies that either the supply side has to be materially better than we think, and that probably isn’t going to happen, or you’re going to have to cut some demand out of the system to free up some gas to inject and that’s what’s precisely we think will happen.

And how does that demand get removed from the system? It gets removed via price.

It’s exactly what happened two years ago. Whether gas goes to $10 again, is very, very tough to call, but ultimately gas prices will have to go high enough to price enough demand out of the system to ensure that there’s enough gas available for injection. If you think about it, the industrial consumer is all about economics. The local utility who’s buying and injecting gas in the summer doesn’t really care because that entity has ability to pass all of their costs through to the consumer and they don’t want to go to their local or public utility commission and explain why my grandma’s heating bill has gone up, but they sure don’t want to go in front of that public utility commission at the end of winter and try to explain why grandmother didn’t have enough gas. They are absolutely the least price sensitive or the most inelastic group of buyers out there and they will compete with the industrial customer. They will push the industrial customer out of the system.

JD: Does that have implications for power generation, like this year?

DP: Well, it may, to the degree that reduction in industrial capacity impacts electricity generation, but most of the industrial consumers who are levered, who are most susceptible to high gas prices are those folks who use natural gases as feedstock, so if you’re making methanol, or ethylene, or ammonia fertilizer, you’re going to use natural gases as an energy input and a feedstock. So if you’re making basic fertilizer, as an example, even in good times, natural gas may comprise 80% of your total cost of finished goods. So when prices go to $8-10, you can imagine the impact on those companies, particularly given that in the global petrochemical business, there’s a glut of capacity and that capacity can be imported. So if I don’t produce fertilizer on the Gulf Coast, I import it. And that’s precisely what happened two years ago.

JD: Would you say that we see this as an example that shows that natural gas is a much more regional hydrocarbon than say oil?

DP: Yes, if you try to compare and contrast the natural gas market, it’s pretty interesting when you juxtapose gas against crude. Here’s crude oil where there’s excess capacity globally on the supply side, and OPEC has almost all, if not all of the excess capacity in the world, and they try to manage the supply and demand balance by regulating supply. So in the global oil market, supply tends to be the relief valve. Prices go up and OPEC adds more supply; prices go down and OPEC takes supply away. Quite frankly, they’ve done a pretty good job over the last little while doing that.

In the gas market, supply is relatively fixed. U.S. supply was down last year; it’s going to be down again this year. Canadian supply is down as a function of mature basin, mature assets and the inability to drill where the most promising reservoirs are. Whether that is a good or bad public policy decision is not my case to make, but the fact is you can’t get blood out of a turnip – you keep drilling the same basins over and over again, there’s no supply growth.

So what happens? Demand has to be the relief valve because LNG imports at this juncture are insignificant. 5-10 years from now, that’s probably a different story. At the end of the day, LNG imports are kind of the one supply side swing factor, they’re not enough to matter on the margin so you have the demand side that tends to regulate a tight market or a market that’s over supplied and demand responds to market pricing signals. So you’ve set up a regional market on a very big regional market, North America, where by definition of gas prices is going to be very volatile because the market is working.

JD: In the light of what you’re saying, where are the hundreds or thousands of new liquefied natural gas ships and the dozens of terminals that will be needed to support them? Are those being built in the U.S. now?

DP: Well, you know that’s the question. The companies that were going to build all the LNG tankers are the same companies that are fighting to stay afloat here. The Enron, who went away in El Paso, those companies were the most logical buyers and builders of incremental capacity. Now you get some LNG growth over time but the question is, is it enough? And the answer is, probably not. If you’re looking longer term, a decade away, maybe you’ll get a pipeline built up to the north slope of Alaska where’s there no question of significant resource. There’s 8 billion cubic feet a day rejected in the gas cap at Prudhoe Bay everyday. You just need to build a pipeline to Prudhoe and you’ve got the potential for 4-5 bcf a day of offtake. But 10 years and $25 billion is probably what it takes to make that happen.

Q3. Canadian production has peaked. How do they fit into the North American natural gas picture?

JD: The production and exporting to America of Canadian natural gas has been an important factor in the U.S. hydrocarbon picture for some time. But now it appears that Canadian natural gas production has peaked and has moving into decline. Can you say anything more about that?

DP: Yes. I think a declining Canadian production in 2003 will be a bit of a watershed event, a wakeup call. You can look at Canadian production over the last few years and clearly all of the growth has been driven by two areas: one, a field in the western basin called Lady Fern, and the east coast development called Sable Island. Between the two, they comprise over a bcf of combined capacity. Sable is experiencing water problems and will probably plateau or even decline in 2003. Lady Fern is on a very well documented high decline rate. The two engines for supply growth in the last 2-3 years aren’t there anymore so now you’re stuck with the majority of the western Canadian sedimentary basin which is fighting some of the same maturity issues that much of the U.S. is and so you build a pipeline up to the MacKenzie Delta. I think the prospects for growth out of Canada continue to be somewhat illusory

Q4. How is the American consumer going to react to “a tightening market” or shortages, to put it another way?

JD: How do you think Americans are going to react when they discover that there is not, after all, boundless and infinite amounts of natural gas in North America, and that’s it’s not so easy to import?

DP: You know, Americans are consumptive pigs, right? We consume 20 billion barrels of oil a day, over 25% of the global oil demand. We consume a huge amount of natural gas.

Quite frankly, the Americans in general, are not educated about where those resources come from and what the implications are. You think that’s crazy, having fought 10 years ago in the Middle East because Saddam Hussein took over a key oil exporting country and the situation we have now in Iraq. But quite frankly, the American consumer is a bit of a whiner. They don’t care until prices are high. There are many unfortunate outcomes of the Enron and the trading scandals but I think one of the most unfortunate outcomes is John Q. Public saying that the whole energy crisis was a figment of Enron’s imagination.

I’m not sure there’s a real recognition that we have a shortage, a tight market out there and it will take another run on prices to make that happen, I’m afraid.

Q5. If the U.S. is Going to be Short of Natural Gas, Why is it Exporting it to Mexico?

JD: The informed American observer may look at the situation and think, but the U.S. is exporting natural gas to Mexico. If we’re short of it, why are we doing that?

DP: It’s the free market – they’re willing to pay Houston ship channel prices for the gas, so they get the gas. Right? NAFTA says that if they can pay for it, they’ll get it.

JD: Does that mean that NAFTA is working the wrong way this time?

DP: Or the right way, depending on… I’m a free market guy so I wouldn’t say that it’s not working. It’s working, but again, the issues are striking with regard to who is ultimately going to be able to pay for the gas, and who’s not.

Posted: Wed Feb 13, 2008 12:59 am
by scareduck
The David Purcell interview doesn't have a date on it, which is one of the most annoying things I see at websites that carry this kind of content. The page itself renders with the request time, so that's not helpful.

As to natural gas, it's instructive to recall that horizontal drilling has yet to be tried in many unconventional reservoirs, including the Marcellus Shale that runs underneath the Appalachians. That could contain as much as a trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas. That total (even a significant fraction of it) would give the U.S. some serious breathing room as far as natural gas consumption is concerned.

Furthermore: net reserves have increased every year from 2001-2006: ... _NUS_a.htm

A certain amount of natural gas price hikes can be blamed on falling storage availability, which has declined from 8.4Mbcf to as little as 8.2Mbcf in 2003. (The 2006 figure is 8.3Mbcf.) ... _nus_a.htm

None of this is to say that I don't believe we are headed for very serious and perhaps even civilization-shattering trouble. In my view it's fusion or heat death, maybe not today or in 10 years, but within my lifetime.

Posted: Wed Feb 13, 2008 1:03 am
by Isochroma
That's called 'reserve appreciation' in the industry. Like counting money on paper before it's made, such appreciations rarely appear in reality.

Also, as oil runs out natural gas demand will increase sharply; gas-to-liquids plants will come online to make it into gasoline, etc. This will put heavy demands on what remains. Also, when NG runs out it tends to do so with a much sharper curve than liquids.

I believe this will result in a temporary boom in He availability, followed by a terminal bust.

Posted: Wed Feb 13, 2008 1:35 am
by pstudier
There is enough helium at current consumption for over 200 years, see ... -heliu.pdf

Posted: Wed Feb 13, 2008 1:38 am
by scareduck
Isochroma wrote:That's called 'reserve appreciation' in the industry. Like counting money on paper before it's made, such appreciations rarely appear in reality.
I hear this repeated a lot, though how true it is remains to be seen. Single-month natural gas production in the US peaked in March 2001. So far.
Also, as oil runs out natural gas demand will increase sharply; gas-to-liquids plants will come online to make it into gasoline, etc.
I'm not so sure this is true, either, especially considering the cancellation of Exxon's big GTL project in Qatar. The economics of doing these kinds of projects may simply not be feasible.
Also, when NG runs out it tends to do so with a much sharper curve than liquids.
March 2001 US production was 1.68 Tcf; November 2007 rang in 1.61 Tcf. That's a 4% decline over a six year period. Granted, there's a lot of furious drilling activity going on, granted, individual wells have shorter and shorter lifespans, and pipelines of necessity have to be built to more locations, making the economic breakeven tighter for each job. Nevertheless, the collapse has yet to happen.
I believe this will result in a temporary boom in He availability, followed by a terminal bust.
I'll make sure to use hydrogen to float my birthday party balloons from now on.

Posted: Wed Feb 13, 2008 1:41 am
by Isochroma
The USGS has a long history of overestimating reserves. Also not the qualifier 'at current consumption'.

To re-quote the article referenced in my first post:

"Helium could eventually be produced directly in nuclear fusion reactors and is produced indirectly in nuclear fission reactors, but the quantities produced by such sources are dwarfed by our needs."

Now, it will take at least a decade or two for the first commercial reactor to get online, whether it be ITER or Polywell or other. It will probably be another 20 years at least before mass commerical rollout, possibly 50, depending on demand. This of course assumes that some fusion design will ever be both technologically practicable and economically feasible.

Paradoxically, the increased electricity prices that will make fusion competitive with other generation systems will come as a result of the shutdown of all those natural-gas burning plants that generate our electricity today. Why will they be shutting down? Natural gas prices will be skyrocketing as the supply runs out. Sadly, it won't be until the majority of cheaply extractable He is gone along with its host NG that fusion will be needed most.

So when fusion energy is finally needed the most, the supply of He, which is tied with NG extraction, will already have reached a low point of terminal decline.

On the bright side, if reactors manage to make an excess of He, it will be saleable on the market to other users at high and increasing prices, which can help subsidize reactor operation. Right now, 'Big Science' funds reactor development; in 100 years, 'Big Polywells' may 'fund' science by providing them an economic supply of He.

Posted: Wed Feb 13, 2008 6:44 pm
by TallDave
I wouldn't worry too much. As with oil, what's running out are the cheaply extractable reserves. Russia and other places have less accessible reserves.

Sobotka believes that Russia will be the world's major source of helium in 30 years.

And worst-case, we can get it back from the atmosphere, though that will be very expensive.

Scientists haven't even approached mining helium out of the air because costs are too prohibitive.

Posted: Wed Feb 13, 2008 6:46 pm
by scareduck
Paradoxically, the increased electricity prices that will make fusion competitive with other generation systems will come as a result of the shutdown of all those natural-gas burning plants that generate our electricity today. Why will they be shutting down? Natural gas prices will be skyrocketing as the supply runs out. Sadly, it won't be until the majority of cheaply extractable He is gone along with its host NG that fusion will be needed most.
So many assumptions in there. If p-11B fusion works, electricity gets cheaper because of the elimination of the steam plant.

Posted: Wed Feb 13, 2008 6:48 pm
by Isochroma
And it will only work if the plants can be filled with the required helium. Catch-22 anyone?

Posted: Wed Feb 13, 2008 6:52 pm
by scareduck
Isochroma wrote:And it will only work if the plants can be filled with the required helium. Catch-22 anyone?
So the solution is to use superconductors with Tc > 77K.

Posted: Wed Feb 13, 2008 6:53 pm
by Isochroma
Now that's a solution.

Posted: Thu Feb 14, 2008 12:47 am
by MSimon
A 100 MW fusion plant will produce about .5 Kg of He a day. More than enough to meet the plant's needs if losses can be kept low. MRIs (similar number of magnets and magnet sizes) keep losses below 1 Kg/10 days. With re-liquifiers you ought to be able to cut that loss by at least 10X.

With 1E4 reactors operating that will produce. 5E3 Kg of He a day.

By the time we are at that level of operation we will have the option of mining the moon for He.

MRI Losses .03 l/hr. = .75 l/day. 1 liter of LHe is .125 Kg. About a Kg every 10 days. A helium liquifier would cut that loss by at least 10X.

Posted: Thu Feb 14, 2008 1:37 am
by Isochroma
Excellent. Glad you've brought some resolution to this potentially problematic area.