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Author Topic: Can we make more helium?  (Read 49986 times)

Offline krool1969

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Can we make more helium?
« on: 22/04/2013 03:31:22 »
Helium isn't just for balloons and making silly voices. It's a rather important industrial gas, and we are running out. I'm wondering, short of fusion power plants (or H-bombs) can we make it?
Helium is a light, highly inert gas. If it's not manufactured where do our current supplies come from. Could it be made in large enough quantifies if we can ever develop fusion nuclear power?


 

Offline damocles

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Re: Can we make more helium?
« Reply #1 on: 22/04/2013 04:47:14 »
Helium on earth is an accumulation of alpha particles from radioactive decay of heavy elements. In the past it has been a scarce resource, but this has been largely negated by new technology which has allowed ever lower levels of helium to be extracted as a by-product in the natural gas production process. We have no way of producing "new" helium, but the ability to exploit less concentrated sources along with measures to conserve helium as it is "used" have made it unlikely that we will run out.
 

Offline CliffordK

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Re: Can we make more helium?
« Reply #2 on: 22/04/2013 08:37:50 »
As a product of nuclear decay, small quantities of helium (276783325d1cc694050a87c36dd6e84a.gifHe) would be made in all nuclear power plants, but at the moment, the capture of this helium isn't economically viable.

There are several estimates that there is a looming helium crisis in 25 to 30 years as some of the current high concentration wells, and reserves run dry.

The helium is often recovered during the production of liquefied natural gas, but not all natural gas is liquefied before distribution.

Personally, I think that it is potentially valuable enough of a resource that it should not be sold as party supplies, although preserving it might mean slowing down both natural gas and helium production from some of the most prolific wells, as well as improving recovery from essentially all other wells.

Helium-3 (2e01dff1fc2eb8fbb9e25361b1a7d54c.gifHe), is far more rare on Earth, but may be an important nuclear fusion fuel in the future.  It is produced in the sun, or as tritium decay product.
 

Offline cheryl j

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Re: Can we make more helium?
« Reply #3 on: 23/04/2013 21:44:14 »
So is there anything else you can put in balloons? I for one, miss them.
 

Offline CliffordK

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Re: Can we make more helium?
« Reply #4 on: 23/04/2013 22:55:13 »
So is there anything else you can put in balloons? I for one, miss them.

Probably nothing that is not flammable,  that would be less dense than air at 1 ATM.  Could you make a mini hot air balloon?

Possibly Neon, but at half the density of air, it may not have enough lift for most ordinary balloons.

Hydrogen, of course, is lighter than air, and we have essentially an infinite supply of it.  How dangerous is the explosion of say 1 gallon (4 liters) of hydrogen at 1 ATM?  No doubt kids would quickly learn they could light them on fire.
 

Offline damocles

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Re: Can we make more helium?
« Reply #5 on: 24/04/2013 01:05:09 »
So is there anything else you can put in balloons? I for one, miss them.

Comprehensive list of all lighter-than-air gases:

gas           Buoyancy (relative to He = 100%)     Drawbacks
hydrogen           108%                     explosively flammable
helium                100%                    slowly leaks from container
methane             52%                      explosively flammable
ammonia            48%                      highly toxic, corrosive, high affinity for water.
neon                   36%                      prohibitively expensive
acetylene            12%                     flammable
6 others              <5%                     various, but mainly not enough buoyancy.

 

Offline cheryl j

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Re: Can we make more helium?
« Reply #6 on: 30/04/2013 04:06:24 »
I guess I cannot inhale any of these safely either to sound like a chipmunk, either. Darn.
 

Offline CliffordK

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Re: Can we make more helium?
« Reply #7 on: 30/04/2013 08:11:00 »
 

Offline syhprum

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Re: Can we make more helium?
« Reply #8 on: 05/05/2013 10:11:14 »
How does Nitrogen rate for buoyancy ? I understand that the gas sold to inflate balloons is normally diluted the Nitrogen to reduce the cost while maintaining adequate buoyancy.
I notice that Argon is cheaper than Helium is it any good for lifting ?
« Last Edit: 05/05/2013 10:19:39 by syhprum »
 

Offline damocles

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Re: Can we make more helium?
« Reply #9 on: 05/05/2013 10:35:13 »
How does Nitrogen rate for buoyancy ? I understand that the gas sold to inflate balloons is normally diluted the Nitrogen to reduce the cost while maintaining adequate buoyancy.
I notice that Argon is cheaper than Helium is it any good for lifting ?

Nitrogen is one of the gases that is only marginally lighter than air. The others are diborane, hydrogen cyanide, ethylene, and carbon monoxide.
A nitrogen balloon is quite impractical. Argon is 35% heavier than air, so again quite impractical.

The list I posted earlier in this thread is quite exhaustive.
« Last Edit: 05/05/2013 10:41:58 by damocles »
 

Offline syhprum

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Re: Can we make more helium?
« Reply #10 on: 05/05/2013 12:27:24 »
How about water vapour at 110C would it be any better than air at the same temperature although it might be rather difficult to work with except perhaps in a Zeppelin
« Last Edit: 05/05/2013 19:20:04 by syhprum »
 

Offline damocles

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Re: Can we make more helium?
« Reply #11 on: 05/05/2013 13:01:25 »
If you are wanting to work at 110C you can use a hot air balloon; less buoyancy than water at that temperature but much less risk of condensation. And we are rather getting away from the theme of this thread which is whether there is any alternative to helium for party balloons.
 

Offline Bored chemist

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Re: Can we make more helium?
« Reply #12 on: 05/05/2013 14:18:18 »
Hold your party in a sealed chamber containing 20% oxygen mixed with something very dense. Argon might just do it but lets go with krypton to make sure.
Then a balloon full of ordinary air would float.
Of course, the krypton might be a bit expensive and the voices at the karaoke would be a bit off key.
 

Offline CliffordK

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Re: Can we make more helium?
« Reply #13 on: 05/05/2013 18:03:52 »
Could you get a radon/air mix that would self-heat enough to become lighter than air?
 

Offline damocles

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Re: Can we make more helium?
« Reply #14 on: 05/05/2013 23:35:50 »
An interesting idea Cliff -- apart from the fact that it would be the last party that any of the guests would attend!

However let us get down to basic issues. Pure radon is around 8 times as heavy as air, so that if we were to use pure radon we would need to be operating at a temperature of at least 2200 K (Ideal gas equation). Clearly this is quite impractical!

At 10% radon we would be needing to achieve a lift factor of about 10, which would mean a working temperature above 500 K. I seriously doubt that the radon would give off enough energy in its radioactive decay to achieve that.
« Last Edit: 06/05/2013 00:04:15 by damocles »
 

Offline cheryl j

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Re: Can we make more helium?
« Reply #15 on: 06/05/2013 02:42:13 »
Hold your party in a sealed chamber containing 20% oxygen mixed with something very dense. Argon might just do it but lets go with krypton to make sure.
Then a balloon full of ordinary air would float.
Of course, the krypton might be a bit expensive and the voices at the karaoke would be a bit off key.

Man, chemists must have weird birthday parties. I can just imagine what the clowns look like!
 

Offline CliffordK

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Re: Can we make more helium?
« Reply #16 on: 06/05/2013 05:49:56 »
Ok,
So radium is too heavy.

There are several isotopes of Argon that have half-lives in from a few minutes, to a few hours to a month to 269 years. 

Neon also has radioactive isotopes, but the longest half-life is 3.38 minutes, and thus one's balloon may not stay aloft for long if it was using radioactive Neon as a heat source.

I got it!!!!!!!
I thought it was interesting that H2 Hydrogen was only marginally more buoyant (at sea level) than Helium despite having half the molecular weight. 

What about filling one's balloon with pure Tritium.  With a molecular weight of 6, it would be slightly more dense than Helium (MW 4).  However, perhaps it would generate a little energy to make up for the excess weight.  And the decay product, 3He is still a lighter than air gas.
 

Offline damocles

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Re: Can we make more helium?
« Reply #17 on: 06/05/2013 08:02:13 »
from CliffordK:
Quote
What about filling one's balloon with pure Tritium.  With a molecular weight of 6, it would be slightly more dense than Helium (MW 4).  However, perhaps it would generate a little energy to make up for the excess weight.  And the decay product, 3He is still a lighter than air gas.


Yes Clifford, tritium would work. Of course apart from being explosively flammable, prohibitively expensive, and highly toxic, tritium is not a great source of energy -- a beta emitter with a particle energy of only 18 keV. Its half life of 12.26 yr would mean that it is only emitting at a few microwatt of power per mole.
 

Offline Bored chemist

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Re: Can we make more helium?
« Reply #18 on: 06/05/2013 09:41:34 »
If you put a radioactive gas in a balloon it will heat up.
How hot it will get depends on the size of the balloon because it is heated in proportion to the volume (which varies as the cube of the radius) but loses heat in proportion to the area (which varies as the square of the radius).
The other factor is how long it takes to reach thermal equilibrium compared to how long it takes for all the radioactive material to decay.

In the limit, at the centre of the balloon the heat can't escape because it's surrounded by other gas which is also "trying to cool down".
At that point the temperature will keep rising until the heat liberated by the decay is absorbed by the decay products. The heat capacity of the products will be calculable as 1/2 k per degree of freedom.
The energy released depends on the radioisotope.
Lets consider tritium.
It decays with an energy of about 18KeV but a lot of that is carried off by the antineutrino and never gets seen again (to a fair approximation) leaving, on average 5.7KeV behind to share out among the debris.
The products (once they get really hot) are the He3 nucleus and 2 electrons so that's 3 particles.
Each can move in any of 3 directions so that's 3 degrees of freedom. They are too symmetrical to vibrate or rotate.

So,

K is about 10^-5 eV per k
and we have 3 particles with 3 degrees of freedom so that's a heat capacity of  9/2 k per tritium and the energy is about 5700 eV

So the temperature will rise to something like a hundred million Kelvin.
At which point, I think, the remaining T3 and H3 will start to fuse and your balloon will turn into a star.
The party will go with a bang.

Slightly more sensibly, if you used one of the stable isotopes of neon, the balloon would float if it was big enough.
 

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Re: Can we make more helium?
« Reply #18 on: 06/05/2013 09:41:34 »

 

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