May 17, 2020

Global Helium Shortage Ballooning out of Control

energy digital
helium shortage
3 min
Scientists call for a rationing of helium
If you've been to the store recently in an effort to pick out that perfect oversized helium-inflated balloon for your special Valentine, you may ha...

If you've been to the store recently in an effort to pick out that perfect oversized helium-inflated balloon for your special Valentine, you may have been told something to the effect of, “sorry, but we're actually experiencing a bit of a helium shortage at the moment.”

It's true—the world is experiencing the worst shortage of helium in decades. Unfortunately, it's affecting more than just the birthday party industry; it's threatening critical research projects and industries that rely on the lighter-than-air element. Welders, deep sea divers, makers of MRI machines, dirty bomb detectors, lasers, fiber optics and computer chips all rely on helium.

The shortage has been particularly hard on research centers studying the brain using machines similar to MRIs, magnetoencephalography (MEG) scanners, at universities such as Glasgow, London, Oxford and Cambridge.

“We increasingly face regular periods of forced shut-down of our multimillion-pound facility because of these difficulties, and we are told the problem will only get worse,” Mark Stokes, a cognitive neuroscientist at Oxford’s Centre for Human Brain Activity, told The Independent. 

Related story: Valentine's Day: Red Roses and Blood Diamonds?

Liquid helium is also critical for the cooling of infrared detectors, nuclear reactors and the machinery of wind tunnels. NASA uses the inert gas to purge potentially explosive fuel from its rockets. I could go on...

Although rare on Earth, helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, with the US as its biggest producer. So, why the shortage?

A little background: In 1920, the government had figured out how to extract helium from natural gas, which was used in the military to protect convoys of ships traveling across the Transatlantic. By 1960, the element became so crucial to national security that Congress passed a law authorizing the federal government to purchase 100 years worth of the stuff—most of which is stored in porous rock some 3,000 feet below the earth's surface in a federal reserve just outside Amarillo, Texas.

Operated by the Bureau of Land Management, the reserve holds about half of the country's helium supply and a third of the world's. By 1996, helium was less important to national security, so Congress passed another law to phase the government out of the business, and started selling the element to the public at rock-bottom prices (two billion cubic feet of crude helium a year).

As the element has become increasingly useful to a plethora of high-profile industries, the rate at which it's selling is not enough to fill growing demand.

The reserve can't just pull out more helium; more companies will have to collect the helium released to the air during the mining of natural gas—an effort most have been unable or unwilling to do. When natural gas prices are low, there is little incentive to produce just the helium.

“It is difficult to imagine an adequate market incentive to collect helium during natural gas extraction while the US government is selling off its entire stockpile at bargain prices,” Dr Stokes added.

Some analysts believe the element could be depleted by the middle of the century. Like any other industry, it demands protection against the fluctuations in cost and its frivolous use. Unlike other industries, however, it is a strategically important raw material and a vital ingredient of our function on Earth.

Cheap helium drives misuse, Stokes explains: “A staggering eight per cent of the world’s helium supply is currently used for filling party balloons.”

Looks like that's about to change. That's ok—I prefer flowers anyway... 


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Jun 12, 2021

Why Transmission & Distribution Utilities Need Digital Twins

Petri Rauhakallio
6 min
Petri Rauhakallio at Sharper Shape outlines the Digital Twins benefits for energy transmission and distribution utilities

As with any new technology, Digital twins can create as many questions as answers. There can be a natural resistance, especially among senior utility executives who are used to the old ways and need a compelling case to invest in new ones. 

So is digital twin just a fancy name for modelling? And why do many senior leaders and engineers at power transmission & distribution (T&D) companies have a gnawing feeling they should have one? Ultimately it comes down to one key question: is this a trend worth our time and money?

The short answer is yes, if approached intelligently and accounting for utilities’ specific needs. This is no case of runaway hype or an overwrought name for an underwhelming development – digital twin technology can be genuinely transformational if done right. So here are six reasons why in five years no T&D utility will want to be without a digital twin. 

1. Smarter Asset Planning

A digital twin is a real-time digital counterpart of a utility’s real-world grid. A proper digital twin – and not just a static 3D model of some adjacent assets – represents the grid in as much detail as possible, is updated in real-time and can be used to model ‘what if’ scenarios to gauge the effects in real life. It is the repository in which to collect and index all network data, from images, to 3D pointclouds, to past reports and analyses.

With that in mind, an obvious use-case for a digital twin is planning upgrades and expansions. For example, if a developer wants to connect a major solar generation asset, what effect might that have on the grid assets, and will they need upgrading or reinforcement? A seasoned engineer can offer an educated prediction if they are familiar with the local assets, their age and their condition – but with a digital twin they can simply model the scenario on the digital twin and find out.

The decision is more likely to be the right one, the utility is less likely to be blindsided by unforeseen complications, and less time and money need be spent visiting the site and validating information.

As the energy transition accelerates, both transmission and distribution (T&D) utilities will receive more connection requests for anything from solar parks to electric vehicle charging infrastructure, to heat pumps and batteries – and all this on top of normal grid upgrade programs. A well-constructed digital twin may come to be an essential tool to keep up with the pace of change.

2. Improved Inspection and Maintenance

Utilities spend enormous amounts of time and money on asset inspection and maintenance – they have to in order to meet their operational and safety responsibilities. In order to make the task more manageable, most utilities try to prioritise the most critical or fragile parts of the network for inspection, based on past inspection data and engineers’ experience. Many are investigating how to better collect, store and analyze data in order to hone this process, with the ultimate goal of predicting where inspections and maintenance are going to be needed before problems arise.  

The digital twin is the platform that contextualises this information. Data is tagged to assets in the model, analytics and AI algorithms are applied and suggested interventions are automatically flagged to the human user, who can understand what and where the problem is thanks to the twin. As new data is collected over time, the process only becomes more effective.

3. More Efficient Vegetation Management

Utilities – especially transmission utilities in areas of high wildfire-risk – are in a constant struggle with nature to keep vegetation in-check that surrounds power lines and other assets. Failure risks outages, damage to assets and even a fire threat. A comprehensive digital twin won’t just incorporate the grid assets – a network of powerlines and pylons isolated on an otherwise blank screen – but the immediate surroundings too. This means local houses, roads, waterways and trees. 

If the twin is enriched with vegetation data on factors such as the species, growth rate and health of a tree, then the utility can use it to assess the risk from any given twig or branch neighbouring one of its assets, and prioritise and dispatch vegetation management crews accordingly. 

And with expansion planning, inspection and maintenance, the value here is less labor-intensive and more cost-effective decision making and planning – essential in an industry of tight margins and constrained resources. What’s more, the value only rises over time as feedback allows the utility to finesse the program.

4. Automated powerline inspection

Remember though, that to be maximally useful, a digital twin must be kept up to date. A larger utility might blanche at the resources required to not just to map and inspect the network once in order to build the twin, but update that twin at regular intervals.

However, digital twins are also an enabling technology for another technological step-change – automated powerline inspection.

Imagine a fleet of sensor-equipped drones empowered to fly the lines almost constantly, returning (automatically) only to recharge their batteries. Not only would such a set-up be far cheaper to operate than a comparable fleet of human inspectors, it could provide far more detail at far more regular intervals, facilitating all the above benefits of better planning, inspection, maintenance and vegetation management. Human inspectors could be reserved for non-routine interventions that really require their hard-earned expertise.

In this scenario, the digital twin provides he ‘map’ by which the drone can plan a route and navigate itself, in conjunction with its sensors. 

5. Improved Emergency Modelling and Faster Response

If the worst happens and emergency strikes, such as a wildfire or natural disaster, digital twins can again prove invaluable. The intricate, detailed understanding of the grid, assets and its surroundings that a digital twin gives is an element of order in a chaotic situation, and can guide the utility and emergency services alike in mounting an informed response.

And once again, the digital twin’s facility for ‘what-if’ scenario testing is especially useful for emergency preparedness. If a hurricane strikes at point X, what will be the effect on assets at point Y? If a downed pylon sparks a fire at point A, what residences are nearby and what does an evacuation plan look like?

6. Easier accommodation of external stakeholders

Finally, a digital twin can make lighter work of engaging with external stakeholders. The world doesn’t stand still, and a once blissfully-isolated powerline may suddenly find itself adjacent to a building site for a new building or road. 

As well as planning for connection (see point 1), a digital twin takes the pain out of those processes that require interfacing with external stakeholders, such as maintenance contractors, arborists, trimming crews or local government agencies – the digital twin breaks down the silos between these groups and allows them to work from a single version of the truth – in future it could even be used as part of the bid process for contractors.

These six reasons for why digital twins will be indispensable to power T&D utilities are only the tip of the iceberg; the possibilities are endless given the constant advancement of data collection an analysis technology. No doubt these will invite even more questions – and we relish the challenge of answering them. 


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