Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What's With the Helium Shortage?

If you didn't know already, let me be the first to inform you that we currently have a shortage of helium. This shortage has been going on for several years now, and it may never end, but first, lets get some perspective.
Helium is the wonderful, colorless, odorless gas that fills up all those party balloons and can make your voice become very high pitched and squeaky, but that's not all it does. Party balloons make up an insignificant portion of today's helium consumption. Helium has all kinds of uses, it can be used in cryogenics for cooling superconducting magnets and running MRIs, it can be used as a purge gas to clear out any number of systems, it's used as a protective environment for arc welding, for growing crystals to make silicon wafers, and for scientific research in the fields of quantum mechanics because of its small size and in low temperature research like superconductivity because it's relatively easy to get it extremely cold. With all these uses, cryogenics being the single largest, it's no wonder that party balloons and voice changing are insignificant.

Helium balloon

Today helium is one of the most important gases around, but we hadn't even observed it until 1868 during a solar eclipse, even then we didn't know what it was. It wasn't until 1895 that the element was formally discovered. Helium is the second most abundant element making up 24% by mass of observable matter in the universe, second only to hydrogen which makes up 75%. Helium is so prevalent that it outweighs all other heavier elements combined by a factor of 12. That's a lot of helium. The only problem is, this element is exceedingly rare on the earth. Helium is made in abundance in the fusion reactions inside stars, but our planet isn't a star. Almost all of the helium that we can get our hands on comes from the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium inside the earth and eventually ends up in natural gas deposits.
In 1903 it was accidentally discovered that the United States actually held massive reserves of helium just waiting around beneath the Great Plains, more than anywhere else in the world. It wasn't until World War I, however, that we began to seriously mine the substance. It was used to fuel barrage balloons and airships like the C-7 which had its maiden voyage on December 1, 1921.

C-7 airship

In 1925, the U.S. government had the smart idea to begin storing this helium. They called it the National Helium Reserve. Everything was going fine, but the government spent a lot of money building pipelines to the reserve and they eventually went into massive debt. After that, the U.S. Congress decided it was time to empty the reserve, and so they began selling off all their helium at artificially low prices. And that is why we have a helium shortage. The reserves are nearly gone, and no big suppliers are picking up the slack.
Luckily, the United States isn't the only country to have helium. Algeria and Russia both have sizable helium deposits. In as little as 30 years, Russia is expected to become the world's leading supplier of helium.

Helium, being a noble gas, glows when a current is run through it

The major problem is that supplies of helium on earth are very limited, and we keep letting it escape into our atmosphere, and eventually out into space. In enough time, even Russia will not be able to fill our helium needs, so what will we do then? Without helium, MRIs will be more difficult to run and scientific research will take a major hit. Plus, where are we going to get a safe, lighter than air gas to fill our children's party balloons? All hope is not lost, however. Recent research shows that the moon could have plenty of helium stored within it. While we won't be mining the moon in the near future, I am confident that we will advance enough that it can become a reality within a few decades. Here's to hoping.

The moon could supply us with helium in the future

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