The Worlds Helium is being Depleted

The world, it seems, is running out of helium – not this popular online content site but rather the inert and surprisingly important gas. Normally, this would only concern those party planners who use helium to inflate balloons or the juvenile pranksters who inhale the gas and talk funny. Unfortunately, the depletion of the nation’s helium supply affects a lot more than balloons.

Nobel Prize winning physicist, Dr. Robert Richardson of Cornell University warned the world that this inert gas is likely to run out in 25 to 30 years unless the pricing for helium is changed. In the August 23, 2010, edition of the U.K.’s “Telegraph,” Richardson noted that the limited supply of helium is being sold off at such as cheap rate that there is no incentive to recycle and conserve it. Helium is a vital component in a wide range of equipment, from medical MRI scanners to spacecraft and rockets.

Several news wire services reported on this warning from Professor Richardson who won the 1996 Nobel Prize for his work on superfluidity in helium. Another British publication, the “Independent,” noted that “about 80 per cent of the world’s reserves are held in the U.S. National Helium Reserve in Texas, but a recently passed law has ruled the reserve must be sold off by 2015 regardless of market price.”  “As a result of this act,” Richardson noted in press reports, “helium is far too cheap and is not treated as a precious resource.  It’s being squandered.” 

What is Helium?

Geologists note that helium gas is created by the radioactive decay of terrestrial rock and that most of the world’s reserves have been collected as a byproduct from the extraction of natural gas. There is no chemical way of manufacturing helium. Wikipedia defines helium as a chemical element with an atomic weight of 4.002602 and is represented in the periodic table by symbol “He.”

Helium is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic, inert gas that heads the “noble gas” group in the periodic table which means that under almost any condition, it does not react with other elements. Its boiling and melting points are the lowest among the elements and it exists only as a gas except in extreme conditions. Next to hydrogen, it is the second most abundant element in the universe and accounts for 24% of the elemental mass of our galaxy.

In sounding his clarion call for the conservation of helium, Richardson said, “The Earth is 4.7 billion years old and it has taken that long to accumulate helium reserves, which we will dissipate in about 100 years,” he says. “One generation does not have the right to determine availability forever.”

Why is Helium Important?

Besides allowing balloons to float above birthday party celebrations, helium has several, critical uses for science and medicine. There is no substitute for helium because no other substance has a lower boiling point. Liquid helium is critical for cooling infrared detectors and nuclear reactors. The space industry uses it in sensitive satellite equipment and spacecraft and NASA uses helium in huge quantities to purge the potentially explosive fuel from its rockets.

A brief scan of scientific websites reveals a wide range of uses. For example, helium is used in cryogenics which is the study of how materials react to lower temperatures. It is probably best known for its use in the cooling of superconducting magnets in MRI scanners.

Wikipedia notes that helium’s other industrial uses are as a protective atmosphere for arc welding and processes such as growing crystals to make silicon wafers. It is also used for lifting airships which, when they are used in military reconnaissance, can impact national security. The online encyclopedia also notes that in scientific research, the behavior of two fluid phases of helium-4, helium I and helium II, is important to researchers studying quantum mechanics and the phenomenon of superfluidity and superconductivity.

Where is it Stored?

A sparsely-populated area of the Texas Panhandle is the home to most of the world’s helium supplies. The National Helium Reserve holds over a billion cubic feet of helium gas. The helium is stored at the Cliffside Storage Facility about 12 miles (19 km) northwest of Amarillo, Texas in a natural geologic gas storage formation. The reserve was established in 1925 as a strategic supply of gas for airships and in the 1950s it became an important source of coolant during the cold war.

In 1960, Congress passed legislation that enabled the U.S. Bureau of Mines to manage five private plants that recovered helium from natural gas. This helium was stored in the Cliffside facility. By 1995, more than a billion cubic meters of helium had been collected and the process had cost the government $1.4 billion. In an effort to recover this investment, Congress passed the “Helium Privatization Act of 1996″ and directed the Department of Interior to liquidate these reserves by 2015. With this date looming, many scientists are alarmed.

What’s Next?

How much longer will the supply of helium last? There are differing opinions on this. However, there is no disagreement about the importance of conserving the remaining stock of this gas. Each time a balloon that was inflated with helium bursts, the gas is forever lost. Also, when the prices for helium are fixed at bargain basement prices and sold to private businesses, the end of this valuable resource comes closer.

Richardson was the co-chair of a US National Research Council inquiry into the coming helium shortage. The report recommends that the U.S. reconsider its policy regarding selling off the helium. It will be up to the United States Congress and the current administration to find a way to either conserve or replenish the reserves of helium or run the risk of running out of this critical element. Until then, it’s a good bet that scientists such as Dr. Richardson will keep this issue in front of the public and like the gas itself, will rise to the occasion.