Forget Oil – We’re Running Out Of Helium!

For decades now, people have been worrying about declining fossil fuel reserves. Coal, oil, and natural gas were formed millions of years ago from dead organisms (vegetation, plankton, or algae, which is why they’re called fossil fuels), so when we finally run out, it’s not like we can just put the planet on hold and wait for a resupply. But the thing is, it doesn’t seem like we’ll ever actually run out of the stuff. Huge new deposits are constantly being discovered, and new techniques are being developed to mine them. Not to mention the fact there are plenty of alternatives to fossil fuels, from ethanol to renewables. But there is one very valuable commodity, crucial to some very important industries and almost impossible to replace, that’s literally leaking away from our planet: helium. You might know it as that stuff that makes balloons float and your voice sound funny when you breathe it in, but helium is extremely important for a number of industries. For one thing, the second lightest element is great at cooling things like magnets and superconductors. About 120 tonnes of liquid helium are used at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) to keep its superconducting systems at a chilly 1.9 K (which is 1.9 degrees above absolute zero, colder than outer space!), but the gas is also used to cool the superconducting magnets in MRI machines. Helium could also be used as fuel for fusion reactors, together with deuterium, though this technology is still some ways away. Interestingly enough, helium is actually the second most abundant element in the Universe, after hydrogen. It was produced in large quantities by the Big Bang, and is the by-product of nuclear fusion in stars like our Sun. The problem is, just because there’s a lot of it in the Universe, it doesn’t mean this is also the case on Earth. Here on our planet, helium is mainly the result of the nuclear decay of elements like uranium and thorium, and is usually found together with natural gas deposits. Due to the fact that it’s extremely light, it easily floats towards the top of the atmosphere and fizzes out into space. Another problem is the fact that there’s no real way to get more of the stuff after we’ve exhausted our meager reserves. This means we might only have enough of it to last a few more decades! You might be asking yourself: if helium is so important, yet so rare, why can basically anyone get it in canisters of gas really cheaply for personal use? Well, you can thank the U.S. Congress for that. Since 1925, the United States has been stockpiling helium at a facility near Amarillo, Texas. The gas was very important during World War II and the Cold War, and at one time, the National Helium Reserve held much of the world’s stockpile. But in 1996, Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act which directed the selling of the helium reserve, basically at whatever the price they could get, by 2015. Thus helium became so cheap it’s actually not worth using diligently or recycling it – and that’s why you can easily get it to fill your birthday party balloons as well. There still is some hope for the future, however. For billions of years, helium-rich solar winds have bombarded our Moon, and huge deposits are thought to have accumulated on its surface. Our celestial companion could also be a great source for many raw materials, from platinum to titanium to uranium, and by the time we actually have the technology to go to the Moon and harvest its resources, we might have figured out nuclear fusion. This would make helium an extremely valuable commodity in the future, one of the world’s prime energy sources. And maybe those scientists and doctors can get some for their machines, too!

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