The noble gas helium, second lightest element, is used for applications such as arc welding, leak detection in high vacuum systems, semiconductor production, thermoacoustic refrigeration, because it is an inert gas. Helium is likewise used for airships and balloons due to its lower density than air and its incombustibility. Helium is also applied in solar telescopes due to its extremely low index of refraction. Helium is likewise used to cool infrared detectors, certain types of nuclear reactors, machinery of wind tunnels, fiber optics during production, rocket fuels, sub-atomic particle detectors, superconductive material, superconductive magnets in MRI equipment, because helium has the lowest melting point and boiling point of any element. Helium is an irreplaceable element in cryogenic applications below the temperature of 17 K, because there is no substitute for helium. Other applications of helium are helium-neon lasers, underwater breathing apparatus for deep sea diving and gas-discharge lamps. Moreover helium-3, an isotope of helium, is crucial as second-generation fusion fuel for next generation nuclear power plants powered by nuclear fusion. Despite being the second most abundant observable element in the universe, on Earth helium is in relatively short supply, at only 5.2 parts per million in the air. The world’s helium supply comes from a few natural gas fields in Texas, Algeria, Qatar, Russia, Australia, where helium is extracted during the refining of natural gas. If helium is not extracted during the refining of natural gas, it drifts up and helium is irreversibly lost to Earth. Therefore helium is a non-renewable and irreplaceable resource. Helium extracting during natural gas refining is the only cost-effective method for helium production. Helium extracting from the air or helium synthesized by bombardment of lithium or boron with high-velocity protons are not viable methods for helium production.
The ultimate extractable world reserve of helium is estimated 39.927 million cubic meters in 2008. The economically extractable world reserve of helium is estimated 18066 million cubic meters in 2008. The world helium consumption is 130 million cubic meters in 2008 and the global helium consumption grows with approximately 5-10%, however there are ample new discoveries of helium reserves. The diminishing helium world reserve will result in helium shortage and rising helium prices in the coming years. In addition higher helium prices are required, to make extraction and storage of helium from all helium-rich natural gas fields economically viable for future generations. With the forecasted helium consumption the helium world reserves that have built over billions of years could be depleted in one generation due to inattention to helium recycling and carelessness about the applications of helium, despite the indispensable role of helium in our human civilization. The depletion of helium reserves on Earth has far reaching consequences for our modern technologies like space technology and cryogenics. The impact of the depletion of helium might be worse than the depletion of our fossil fuels.