We’re Running Out of Helium and We Need It

January 3, 2013 at 2:00 am 4 comments

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.

Helium Balloons

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.

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Photo: Heartlover1717 (cc)

Sources: wikipedia (helium), washington post, how stuff works, independent.co.uk, bureau of land management

Entry filed under: Be Green. Tags: , , , , .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Paul  |  January 3, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    Hey Chad, Alana & I were just talking about this yesterday (with a young boy’s birthday coming up) trying to figure out where helium came from and what else it is used for aside from making funny voices.

    Reply
    • 2. Chad Upton  |  January 6, 2013 at 8:45 am

      Hey Paul! It is an interesting substance with so many uses. Hope you guys are doing well!

      Reply
  • 3. james  |  January 12, 2013 at 11:58 am

    The military also uses a “hot helium” test called 80-as for jet engine testing/simulations.

    Reply
  • 4. Alex  |  October 17, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    Yet again, the government demonstrates enormous foresight, responsibility and that we have no need to think for ourselves. Well done government for disproviing anarchy.

    Reply

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