Qatar Crisis Threatens Helium Supplies

The Arab States’ blockade of Qatar is threatening the world’s supply of helium, the gas used to blow up balloons. Most of the world’s helium comes from the United States, followed by Qatar. The Arab blockade has forced Qatar to close its refineries, effectively cutting back about one quarter of the world’s helium supply. Three thousand metric tons of helium is created annually by the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium in the earth’s interior. The helium is trapped in natural gas deposits deep underground and is extracted in refineries by fractional distillation. Most of the world’s helium is used to cool superconducting magnets in medical scanners in hospitals, and a little is used for relieving severe respiratory obstruction. Otherwise, scientists use a lot of liquid helium to cool their particle accelerators and spectrometers, in the manufacture of silicon chips, in gas chromatography, in supersonic wind tunnels, and as a launch fuel for rockets. The Saturn 5 rocket needed 37,000 cubic metres of helium to leave the ground. Europe’s giant Hadron collider has 27 kilometres of magnets that need 90 tonnes of liquid helium to maintain them at minus 271 degrees Celsius – the coldest place on Earth. Helium gas is also used by divers going deeper than 150 metres, and by welders. Scientists are very worried by the Arab States’ blockade of Qatar supplies because they will be the first to feel the effect of the shortages. During previous helium shortages, hospitals had top priority in getting supplies, with scientists way down the list. When supplies dried up, scientists had to shut down costly equipment, or shift to other projects. After helium has served its purpose in hospitals or in labs, it evaporates into the atmosphere and then into outer space. A solution to the shortage is to prevent evaporation. Trouble is, it costs a small lab up to $100,000 to install the necessary machinery, and over $1 million for a larger facility. Helium occasionally makes the news in New Zealand. You may recall NASA launching a huge helium-filled balloon from Wanaka airport last April. It drifted towards South America at a height of 37km measuring high-energy cosmic rays. A different sort of ‘Observer’ helium balloon daily takes up to 20 passengers to a height of 500 feet above Fairy Springs, Rotorua, providing spectacular views for $49. To blow up party balloons, $69 will buy you a cylinder of helium gas at large stores (Warehouse Stationary) throughout New Zealand. The gas is harmless in small quantities but sometimes makes your voice go up an octave to sound like a duck. In large quantities helium can kill you, as was the case of a young man who committed suicide by inhaling from a party-kit cylinder in Wellington. His death in 2011 prompted the coroner to suggest the cylinders be diluted with oxygen and their sale be age-restricted. Scientists are bracing themselves for the Arab States’ blockade to play out. Meanwhile, Chinese scientists are looking to mine the 5 million tonnes of helium buried under the moon’s surface.

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