We’re Running Out of Helium and We Need It
By Chad Upton | Editor
Most of us only encounter helium at parties, but its role is far greater than floating balloons and squeaking voices.
Like oil, helium is formed deep in the earth over millions of years. It is created by radioactive decay of underground terrestrial rock. Helium is often trapped with Natural Gas and separating the two during natural gas extraction is typically how we get it.
About half of the world’s helium is located at the National Helium Reserve in Texas. This government reserve was originally setup in 1925, when the extraordinary value of helium was first recognized. The government believed airships were the future of defense and helium was the safest lighter-than-air gas to use since it’s not flammable. They were right in a way, helium was an important gas for future defense and science, but blimps were not a big part of that.
Helium is used to cool infrared detectors and was critical in the development of the atomic bomb and other scientific discoveries. Hospitals need helium to cool MRI scanners. It is also used in space rockets, defense systems, deep-sea diving, airships, optical lenses, power plants, wind tunnels, and other important areas of science.
Despite its great importance to our health and safety, we are squandering helium to the point where experts believe we will run out in as little as 15 years.
The rapid consumption of helium is a result of a 1996 law aimed at recovering the cost of building the helium reserve in the first place. The goal of the law was to sell off all helium reserves by 2015 and they’re using clear out pricing rather than demand driven market pricing. This leaves no incentive to capture and recycle the helium that is used in some applications; once helium is released it can not be captured again.
Robert Richardson, Nobel laureate and professor of physics at Cornell University, believes that party balloons would cost around $100 if they properly reflected the value of the precious gas they contain.
The law is being revisited and hopefully a helium crisis will be avoided.
Photo: Heartlover1717 (cc)