My idea for a helium generator

  1. Hello. I am currently doing my GCSEs and I take Triple Science. My favourite science is definitely physics, and after a lesson on radioactive decay at school I came up with an idea. I remember a while ago hearing on the news that the Earth is running out of natural sources of helium.

    My idea consists of an aluminium cylinder with a pipe in the top. At the bottom of the cylinder is a source of beta radiation, and at the top a source of alpha radiation. In the top half of the cylinder there is an iron bar passing through the whole diameter of the cylinder connected to a power supply (let's call this 'bar 1'), and an identical iron bar in the bottom half, also connected to a power supply (let's call this 'bar 2). The iron bars have copper wires wrapped around the ends (to create a magnetic field), and the current through bar 1 must be at least 8000x stronger than bar 2. The alpha particles will be directed by the magnetic field of bar 1 into the beta particles (which are directed by bar 2). The beta source should have a half life at least 2x smaller than the alpha source (as you need two beta particles with one alpha particle to create a helium atom). The helium will then rise out of the pipe at the top and can be stored in something. The magnetic fields created by the bars are not essential, but I thought that they would increase the yield by increasing the amount of beta particles hitting into alphas. Obviously the cylinder would have to be a vacuum to prevent the alpha/beta particles hitting anything else.

    Please tell me if my idea would work, and if not why not - as I don't know too much beyond my GCSE physics and I would love to learn more. Thank-you for reading my post.
  2. jcsd
  3. mfb

    Staff: Mentor

    You don't need those bars, or a beta source, or anything else. Every alpha emitter will produce helium, as the emitted nuclei will get stopped and catch two electrons (remember, the decayed atom has two too much afterwards anyway). The amount is not enough to be of commercial interest, however. Nature did that in natural gasoline resources for millions of years.
  4. SteamKing

    SteamKing 10,974
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    Plus, the authorities tend to frown on unauthorized folks getting hold of large amounts of radioactive material. It gives the neighbors the heebie-jeebies, to use the technical term.
  5. f95toli

    f95toli 2,472
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    But it might be worth noting that the amount of He3 IS of commercial interest, or a least is was back when the US was still producing fissionable material for bombs. But then He3 is very, very expensive whereas He4 is -relatively speaking- stil quite cheap.
  6. mfb

    Staff: Mentor

    He3 is not produced in alpha decays ;). I assumed the question considered He4 only.
  7. f95toli

    f95toli 2,472
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    True. I should have been clearer. I just meant to say that there are indeed some fairly exotic -but neverthless useful- materials/gases that are (or at least used to be) produced on a commercial scale using fission (either in reactors or in accelarators).
    However, He4 is not one of themo:)
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