This rather old Nature article argues about the importance of Helium recycling due to its scarcity:

(..) scientists rely on to cool superconducting magnets inside nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers, magnetic resonance imaging scanners, particle accelerators, and much else besides.

Other helium shortages have caused havoc for labs over the past two decades. Yet there is a simple way for researchers to both insulate themselves from supply shortages and save on their helium bills — a large chunk of running expenses in many labs.

Ensuring that Helium is not wasted seems necessary and I am wondering if / how does US ensure that this does not become an issue. I am thinking of something similar to battery recycling which seems to be covered by federal law.

Question: What is the current US Helium recycling policy?

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    Parallelisms with battery recycling might be unwarranted: while recovering the components of batteries is a nice thing, AFAIK the main drive behind those laws is that the battery components are highly toxic and could become an environmental/public health problem (IOW, externalities). Helium does not have such a problem, if you mismanage your helium you will be the one who has to buy more of it; the only externality would be the increased price due to increased demand. – SJuan76 Sep 4 at 9:39
  • @SJuan76 - you are right. This example came to my mind because it is very familiar. Dealing with Helium means nothing for the layman due to its usage in very specific industries (perhaps except the party balloons). However, due to its limited nature, I expect to regulate to minimize being wasted. – Alexei Sep 4 at 10:53
  • The issue here is that there is a finite amount of helium in the Earth. Most of what we get is a byproduct of oil drilling. Once that is gone, it is gone forever: it is light enough to escape from the atmosphere off into space. – Paul Johnson Sep 4 at 17:13
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    both helium and hydrogen, due to their small atomic sizes, tend to leak out very efficiently from almost any non-specialized containers so recycling would be very iffy it at all possible. limiting frivolous uses (party balloons) or pricing it correctly would be a much better bet. wired.com/2015/07/… (Wired's hardly my goto science ref but the gist seems correct-ish) – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Sep 4 at 17:22
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica But do commercial uses of helium (e.g. party balloons) comprise a significant fraction of consumption, relative to industrial/research uses? My guess would be no. – zibadawa timmy Sep 4 at 17:31

The release of helium from the liquidation of the US national reserve some years ago led to artificially abundant supply for years, and following that, there have been shortages for some time now. Frivolous uses like party balloons have been less common.

Helium is a limited resource and once it is released to the atmosphere it disappears forever because gravity is too weak to hold the gas under atmospheric conditions, however there is "mined" Helium available from natural gas production (Qatar, the US and Russia, I believe). Presumably much of it is being vented because it's not economical to collect it all.

As a consumer of moderately large quantities of liquid He we were apportioned a ration based on historical consumption patterns a couple years ago, which made it hard to scale usage up (there was no practical way to recycle the Helium in our case).

Because of the limited supply and relatively high price, most volume users do recover much of what they use, for example at CERN (130 metric tons). Similarly at Universities such as Maryland, much of the gas is trapped and re-liquified.

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I am not sure if helium recycling is possible on any practical level as a lot of the ways it is used does not allow for it be be recycled/recovered after it is used.


It should also be noted that the technology needed to recapture and recycle it does not come cheap as you need equipment to capture all the gas, purify it and reliquefy it which is not cheap or easy to do.

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  • Of course, government subsidies can arbitrarily alter the economic feasibility, and these are predicated upon political forces and industry lobbying rather than straight costs. Existing ones already have a sizable impact on the various recycling industries, especially the energy subsidies underlying the aluminium industry. – zibadawa timmy Sep 4 at 17:34
  • @zibadawatimmy They can but with the costs running into millions of dollars for even a small lab it becomes very costly and begs the question about the use of helium in places where it is not needed such as balloons and parade floats. – Joe W Sep 4 at 18:19
  • parade floats are one of the applications where it could be recycled - at the end of the day most of the helium is still in the baloon, it could be re-compressed and returned for reprocessing if there was incentive to do so... labs are run closed circuit, usage there is where it leaks through metal pipes, – Jasen Sep 5 at 11:11
  • @Jasen Not all labs do that though, just the bigger ones because of the costs of the machines to do it are to expensive. – Joe W Sep 5 at 14:06
  • I can't read the link, can you add a quote of the section that supports "...a lot of the ways it is used does not allow for it be be recycled/recovered after it is used." Thanks! – uhoh Sep 8 at 16:04

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