Would Helium Go “Extinct”?

Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe just after hydrogen, but only makes up 0.0005% of Earth’s atmosphere because of its tendency to rise above other components of air and eventually escape to space. Most helium on Earth is the product from radioactive decay: uranium and thorium buried deep inside the crust constantly emit alpha particles, which is essentially the nuclei of helium. On their way out of its parent atoms, the particles transform themselves into helium atoms grabbing nearby electrons. Through this chemo-physical process, Earth generates about 3,000 tons of helium gas annually. Modern-day industrial scale extraction of helium relies on the distillation of crude natural gas, which is made of up to 7% helium. Although the United States used to produce 90% of all commercial helium in the world, in 2013 Qatar became the world’s top producer. But due to a geopolitical crisis started two years ago, the country’s border has been blockaded by its rival neighbors. The fallout among the Arab nations led to the major interruption of commercial helium shipment. Although other suppliers have been working extra hard to crank up production, many in science and medicine, who heavily rely on the inert gas to cool down superconducting magnets in MRI scanners and NMR spectrometers, are suffering in this shortage. Unless we manage to start collecting helium from the outer space any time soon, scientists suggest methods for conservation and recovery programs can help ease the pain.

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