Helium Is A Finite Resource. And There’s A Shortage.

There isn’t much helium on planet Earth, however: just a few parts-per-million. The problem is that the helium nucleus is so light that our Earth’s gravity cannot hold it. Once helium enters our atmosphere, it escapes into the vacuum of space, lost from Earth, swept along with the solar wind. With a nuclear mass of just four — two protons and two neutrons — helium is a very stable element. Some of helium’s most vital properties for our purposes is that it is chemically inert and nonreactive, it is nonflammable, nonpoisonous, and, most importantly, it boils at 4.2 Kelvin, or minus 268 degrees Celsius, which is near absolute zero, the lowest temperature possible in the universe. No other element can remain a liquid at these temperatures. There is simply no other material with helium’s unique properties available to us at this time. For many industrial applications, there is no substitute for relatively inexpensive helium. It is vital in aerospace and defense technologies, high-tech manufacturing, rocket engine testing, welding, commercial diving, magnets in particle accelerators, the production of fiber optic cables, and semi-conductor chips found in your cell phone. However, it turns out that the single biggest use of helium is to support our medical imaging industry, specifically magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, and high-end material analytics take advantage of very high magnetic fields to make the nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, spectroscopy measurements. Those fields would not be possible to generate without liquid helium’s ultra-low boiling point.

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