Throwing A Party? Don’t Be Left Deflated By The Helium Shortage

I encountered a major inconvenience while picking up the final supplies for my daughter’s birthday party this weekend. So, we threw a 5th birthday party for my daughter on Saturday and I had to do a lot running around in the morning. I had to pick up the cake, get the balloons filled, and pick up the last of the snacks. First stop, fill the balloons. We had purchased all the supplies at Party City, which included a 5-pack of Barbie balloons varied in size. Now at Party City, you can return with your receipt and have the balloons filled for free on the day of the party. So, I went to Party City to have the balloons filled. I walk in, normal things are happening: people shopping, workers filling balloons and helping customers at the registers. I grabbed some extra cups while I was there and approached the register, and said, “I would like to purchase the cups and have these balloons filled. Here’s my receipt.” The cashier said, “We’re out of helium”… I responded with, “How are you filling those balloons (motioning to the guy currently filling balloons). They replied with “We’re only doing pre-orders.” Upon further conversation, I learned that there’s a National Helium Shortage! I didn’t know that even happened. I ended up getting balloons filled at another store that wasn’t rationing their helium. But be aware if you plan on getting balloons filled for an upcoming party. You might want to pre-order, or you’ll end up spending very unnecessary money.

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National Helium Shortage Affecting Local Businesses

If you’ve been looking for balloons at your next party, you may have noticed signs about a national helium shortage. The issue has local businesses feeling deflated about low or no sales. Until a year ago, the Petal Patch sold balloons to go with their flower arrangements. Now, balloons aren’t even an option. “In fact, we sold our helium machine earlier this year,” said Courtenay Logan, an employee at the Petal Patch. The Petal Patch says their cost for helium went up about 30 percent. “I think sometimes small businesses might feel things first. It was just a common request for us, so we do try to be mindful. If our prices go up, we have to raise them on customers and at some point it’s just no longer reasonable for even a customer to even provide or purchase,” said Logan. The impacts of the national helium shortage are obvious at larger businesses, too. A sign on the door of the Dollar Tree in College Station says that they are temporarily out of helium. At the Party City in College Station, they’ve also struggled to keep helium in stock. A note on their website explains the shortage to customers. A supply and demand issue is forcing businesses to get creative. “It was difficult. I think over the years balloons have kind of been a staple with florists shop, so any transition is always difficult but we try to stay up to date and innovate in different ways. We now offer candles, chocolates, and various gift items throughout the store just providing alternates worked for us,’ said Logan. The helium shortage is also impacting hospitals and scientific research.

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Mining The Moon

If you were transported to the Moon this very instant, you would surely and rapidly die. That’s because there’s no atmosphere, the surface temperature varies from a roasting 130 degrees Celsius (266 F) to a bone-chilling minus 170 C (minus 274 F). If the lack of air or horrific heat or cold don’t kill you then micrometeorite bombardment or solar radiation will. By all accounts, the Moon is not a hospitable place to be.

Yet if human beings are to explore the Moon and, potentially, live there one day, we’ll need to learn how to deal with these challenging environmental conditions. We’ll need habitats, air, food and energy, as well as fuel to power rockets back to Earth and possibly other destinations. That means we’ll need resources to meet these requirements. We can either bring them with us from Earth – an expensive proposition – or we’ll need to take advantage of resources on the Moon itself. And that’s where the idea of “in-situ resource utilization,” or ISRU, comes in.

Underpinning efforts to use lunar materials is the desire to establish either temporary or even permanent human settlements on the Moon – and there are numerous benefits to doing so. For example, lunar bases or colonies could provide invaluable training and preparation for missions to farther flung destinations, including Mars. Developing and utilizing lunar resources will likely lead to a vast number of innovative and exotic technologies that could be useful on Earth, as has been the case with the International Space Station.

As a planetary geologist, I’m fascinated by how other worlds came to be, and what lessons we can learn about the formation and evolution of our own planet. And because one day I hope to actually visit the Moon in person, I’m particularly interested in how we can use the resources there to make human exploration of the solar system as economical as possible.

A rendering of a possible lunar habitat, featuring elements printed in 3D with lunar soil.

In-situ resource utilization

ISRU sounds like science fiction, and for the moment it largely is. This concept involves identifying, extracting and processing material from the lunar surface and interior and converting it into something useful: oxygen for breathing, electricity, construction materials and even rocket fuel.

Many countries have expressed a renewed desire to go back to the Moon. NASA has a multitude of plans to do so, China landed a rover on the lunar farside in January and has an active rover there right now, and numerous other countries have their sights set on lunar missions. The necessity of using materials already present on the Moon becomes more pressing.

Artist’s impression of what lunar in-situ resource utilization might look like. NASA

Anticipation of lunar living is driving engineering and experimental work to determine how to efficiently use lunar materials to support human exploration. For example, the European Space Agency is planning to land a spacecraft at the lunar South Pole in 2022 to drill beneath the surface in search of water ice and other chemicals. This craft will feature a research instrument designed to obtain water from the lunar soil or regolith.

There have even been discussions of eventually mining and shipping back to Earth the helium-3 locked in the lunar regolith. Helium-3 (a non-radioactive isotope of helium) could be used as fuel for fusion reactors to produce vast amounts of energy at very low environmental cost – although fusion as a power source has not yet been demonstrated, and the volume of extractable helium-3 is unknown. Nonetheless, even as the true costs and benefits of lunar ISRU remain to be seen, there is little reason to think that the considerable current interest in mining the Moon won’t continue.

It’s worth noting that the Moon may not be a particularly suitable destination for mining other valuable metals such as gold, platinum or rare earth elements. This is because of the process of differentiation, in which relatively heavy materials sink and lighter materials rise when a planetary body is partially or almost fully molten.

This is basically what goes on if you shake a test tube filled with sand and water. At first, everything is mixed together, but then the sand eventually separates from the liquid and sinks to the bottom of the tube. And just as for Earth, most of the Moon’s inventory of heavy and valuable metals are likely deep in the mantle or even the core, where they’re essentially impossible to access. Indeed, it’s because minor bodies such as asteroids generally don’t undergo differentiation that they’re such promising targets for mineral exploration and extraction.

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt standing beside a boulder on the lunar surface. NASA

Lunar formation

Indeed, the Moon holds a special place in planetary science because it is the only other body in the solar system where human beings have set foot. The NASA Apollo program in the 1960s and 70s saw a total of 12 astronauts walk, bounce and rove on the surface. The rock samples they brought back and the experiments they left there have enabled a greater understanding of not only our Moon, but of how planets form in general, than would ever have been possible otherwise.

From those missions, and others over the ensuing decades, scientists have learned a great deal about the Moon. Instead of growing from a cloud of dust and ice as the planets in the solar system did, we’ve discovered that our nearest neighbor is probably the result of a giant impact between the proto-Earth and a Mars-sized object. That collision ejected a huge volume of debris, some of which later coalesced into the Moon. From analyses of lunar samples, advanced computer modeling and comparisons with other planets in the solar system, we’ve learned among many other things that colossal impacts could be the rule, not the exception, in the early days of this and other planetary systems.

Carrying out scientific research on the Moon would yield dramatic increases in our understanding of how our natural satellite came to be, and what processes operate on and within the surface to make it look the way it does.

Artist’s impression of the collision between the proto-Earth and a Mars-sized object. NASA/JPL-CALTECH/T. Pyle

The coming decades hold the promise of a new era of lunar exploration, with humans living there for extended periods of time enabled by the extraction and use of the Moon’s natural resources. With steady, determined effort, then, the Moon can become not only a home to future explorers, but the perfect stepping stone from which to take our next giant leap.

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Up, Up, And Literally Away; Helium Shortage Impacts Many

It is used in brain cell research, by the military and in magnetic resonance imaging machines, but when most people think of helium, they think of balloons. But these days, the price of helium is soaring faster than the balloons it fills. A worldwide shortage has reduced stores of the noble gas. Helium is running out because in 1996, the Helium Privatization Act required that the Department of the Interior sell its helium to help make up the cost of building the reserve. In turn, the United States government sold most of the nation’s stockpile of helium at below-average prices by 2015. The colorless and odorless gas, which was discovered in 1895, is lighter than air and was found on the sun. Its name comes from the Greek ‘helios’ which means sun. Consumers have been feeling the pinch of helium prices for several years, but as the nation’s stores dwindle, it has become more acute. Amala Petroski, a sophomore history and political science double major, said she tried to buy balloons recently, but the store didn’t have helium. “They did, however, let me know that I could pre-order for when they would have access to helium, and it would be $60, which is double the original price,” she said.

Party City located near TCU’s Campus. (Photo Credit: Riane Cleveland)

Party City has posted information about the shortage and how it may be affecting stores across the country on its website. Madison McGinnis, a sales associate at the Party City off Loop 820 and South Hulen Street, said she has worked at Party City since April and has seen the price of balloons increase. Helium prices over the past decade have increased due to the shortage, and the demand for it isn’t slowing down. “We ran out of helium two weeks ago for a short amount of time,” said McGinnis. “The longest we have gone without helium was three weeks in October. “

the price of both In-Kind (supplies helium to federal agencies) and Conservation (stored underground) Helium has risen over the past five years. Graph Credit: Riane Cleveland

According to MarketWatch, every year there has been a 10 percent increase in demand for helium this past decade, and it is likely to continue into 2020. Hospitals, the military and more also use helium in their industry. The largest helium reserve, the Federal Helium Reserve, is located just 6 hours from TCU in Amarillo, Texas. They store over 1 billion cubic meters of helium gas. The Federal Helium System is set to cease operations in 2021, and its assets must be disposed of. Once it is shut down, they plan to transition to a privatized helium system. Many people and businesses are hoping that helium doesn’t run out in the near future.

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Mining The Moon Ready To Lift Off By 2025

In this concept image, a resource prospector carrying a payload roves on the lunar surface. (Image courtesy of NASA.)

European scientists have announced plans to start mining the moon as early as 2025, though what they’ll be extracting is neither gold nor diamonds, but waste-free nuclear energy thought to be worth trillions of dollars.
The goal is to place a lander on the lunar surface to mine and process regolith for water, oxygen, metals and an isotope called helium-3, which may prove useful for fueling future fusion reactors. Regolith, Universe Today reported, is a dust-like material that covers the lunar surface and is the result of billions of years of meteor and comet impacts. If anyone ever lives on the moon, they could use the regolith to build habitats for a base. The mission will be in charge of the European Space Agency in partnership with ArianeGroup, Popular Mechanics reported. It will also count with the participation of Part-Time Scientists, a German group and former Google Lunar XPrize contestant. Europe isn’t the only one getting on board of the lunar mining train. Both India and China have floated ideas about extracting Helium-3 from the Earth’s natural satellite. Beijing has already landed on the moon twice in the 21st century, with more missions to follow. There are an estimated one million tonnes of helium-3 in the moon, though only 25% of that could be brought to Earth, Gerald Kulcinski, director of the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council told Bloomberg last year. But that’s enough to meet the world’s current energy demands for at least two, and maybe as many as five, centuries, said the expert said, who estimates that helium-3 is worth almost $5 billion a tonne.

No longer science fiction

After being considered mostly a science-fiction tale, governments are now rushing to implement programs and legislation that allow them to join the race for mining in space. In 2015, former US President Barack Obama signed a law that grants US citizens rights to own resources mined in space. The ground-breaking rule was touted as a major boost to asteroid mining because it encourages the commercial exploration and utilization of resources from asteroids obtained by US firms. Shortly after, Luxembourg launched an official initiative to promote the mining of asteroids for minerals. The tiny European country, which has been studying possible involvement in the sector since 2013, aims to become Europe’s centre for space mining. Canada is also eying the moon. Last year, Northern Ontario-based Deltion Innovations partnered with Moon Express, the first American private space exploration firm to have been granted government permission to travel beyond Earth’s orbit, on future opportunities in outer space. Some of the space ventures in the works include plans to mine asteroids, track space debris, build the first human settlement in Mars, and billionaire Elon Musk’s own plan for an unmanned mission to the red planet. Geologists as well as emerging companies, such as US-based Planetary Resources, a firm pioneering the space mining industry, believe asteroids are packed with iron ore, nickel and precious metals at much higher concentrations than those found on Earth, making up a market valued in the trillions of dollars.

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