Mining And Refining: Helium

With a seemingly endless list of shortages of basic items trotted across newsfeeds on a daily basis, you’d be pardoned for not noticing any one shortage in particular. But in among the shortages of everything from eggs to fertilizers to sriracha sauce has been a growing realization that we may actually be running out of something so fundamental that it could have repercussions that will be felt across all aspects of our technological society: helium.

The degree to which helium is central to almost every aspect of daily life is hard to overstate. Helium’s unique properties, like the fact that it remains liquid at just a few degrees above absolute zero, contribute to its use in countless industrial processes. From leak detection and welding to silicon wafer production and cooling the superconducting magnets that make magnetic resonance imaging possible, helium has become entrenched in technology in a way that belies its relative scarcity.

But where does helium come from? As we’ll see, the second lightest element on the periodic table is not easy to come by, and considerable effort goes into extracting and purifying it enough for industrial use. While great strides are being made toward improved methods of extraction and the discovery of new deposits, for all practical purposes helium is a non-renewable resource for which there are no substitutes. So it pays to know a thing or two about how we get our hands on it.

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Electric Vehicles, The Gasoline Problem, And Synthetic Fuels

When you’re standing at the gas station filling up your car, watching those digits on the pump flip by can be a sobering experience. Fuel prices, especially the price of gasoline, have always been keenly watched, so it’s hard to imagine a time when gasoline was a low-value waste product. But kerosene, sold mainly for lighting, was once king of the petroleum industry, at least before the automobile came along, to the extent that the gasoline produced while refining kerosene was simply dumped into streams to get rid of it.

The modern mind perhaps shudders at the thought of an environmental crime of that magnitude, and we can’t imagine how anyone would think that was a good solution to the problem. And yet we now face much the same problem, as the increasing electrification of the world’s fleet of motor vehicles pushes down gasoline demand. To understand why this is a problem, we’ll start off by taking a look at how crude oil is formed, and how decreasing demand for gasoline may actually cause problems that we should think about before we get too far down the road.

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Anyone Need A Little Fuming Nitric Acid?

If there’s a chemical with a cooler name than “fuming nitric acid,” we can’t think of it. Nearly pure nitric acid is useful stuff, especially if you’re in the business of making rocket fuels and explosives. But the low-end nitric acid commonly available tops out at about 68% pure, so if you want the good stuff, you’ll have to synthesize fuming nitric acid yourself. (And by “good stuff”, we mean be very careful with the resulting product.)

Fuming nitric acid comes in two colors – red fuming nitric acid (RFNA), which is about 90% pure and has some dissolved nitrogen oxides, giving it its reddish-brown color. White fuming nitric acid (WFNA) is the good stuff — more than 99% pure. Either one is rough stuff to work with — you don’t want to wear latex or nitrile gloves while using it. It’s not clear what [BarsMonster] needs the WFNA for, although he does mention etching some ICs. The synthesis is pretty straightforward, if a bit dangerous. An excess of sulfuric acid is added to potassium nitrate, and more or less pure nitric acid is distilled away from the resulting potassium sulfate. Careful temperature control is important, and [BarsMonster] seems to have gotten a good yield despite running out of ice.

We don’t feature too many straight chemistry hacks around here, but this one seemed gnarly enough to be interesting. We did have a Hackaday Prize entry a while back on improvements to the Haber process for producing ammonia, which curiously is the feedstock for commercial nitric acid production processes.

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