2012 podcast nuttall helium

Helium floats up the agenda

31 May 2012

The article at a glance

The Future of Helium as a Natural Resource, co-authored by Dr William Nuttall, lays out the changing dynamics of the helium industry …

HeliumThe Future of Helium as a Natural Resource, co-authored by Dr William Nuttall, lays out the changing dynamics of the helium industry and the future applications for this important gas

A recognised expert on energy technologies is predicting a healthy long-term future for the helium industry with the gas playing a major part in both nuclear fission and fusion.

Dr William Nuttall, University Senior Lecturer in Technology Policy, Cambridge Judge Business School has co-authored a new book, The Future of Helium as a Natural Resource, which is the first book to focus in detail on both its supply and demand. Published by Routledge, the book is co-authored by Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) cryogenic technologist Richard Clarke, and Bartek Glowacki, a Professor in Materials Science and Metallurgy at Cambridge University. Amongst the conclusions the book offers are that more gas will be needed, reserves will have to be conserved and recycling must be prioritised.

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In a video interview on Cambridge Judge Business School’s website, Dr Nuttall predicts that future new users could be in the energy generation area.

“Helium could be used in conventional nuclear fission where it gives the opportunity to use a higher temperature fluid to turn the turbine. It is more efficient in engineering terms to get away from steam and to head towards Helium. That would be a major user if it happens.

“Another potential big user on the horizon is nuclear fusion – bringing small atoms together to make energy, not big atoms of uranium or plutonium, and splitting them. That form of nuclear energy requires really big magnets cooled with liquid helium.”

Dr Nuttall adds that from time-to-time helium crises appear with claims that the world is running out of the gas, when in fact there are enormous reserves of helium mixed with natural gas in geological reserves.

“These crises are not the fundamental issue. There is however a long-term problem and it is that the natural gas industry has a finite future and therefore the current helium supply chain has a finite future.”

Helium is extracted from the ground with natural gas, emphasises Dr Nuttall. The helium gas product is combusted along with the natural gas in stoves or industrial facilities as part of its journey from the ground into the atmosphere, any unused quantities are not stored underground for the future which raises the prospects of a real problem long-term.