Many people do not realize that helium is a non renewable resource. It is made on earth via nuclear decay of uranium and it is recoverable from mines. Once it is released into the atmosphere it becomes uneconomical to recapture it and eventually atmospheric helium will escape earth altogether because it is so light. This is an issue that many people go outside the industries that use helium is unaware of but one that will eventually affect them nonetheless. It is the second lightest element in the universe, has the lowest boiling point of any gas and is commonly used through the world to inflate party balloons.
But helium is also a non-renewable resource and the worlds reserve of the precious gas are about to run out, a shortage that is like to have far reaching repercussions. Scientist have warned the world’s most commonly used inert gas is being depleted at an astonishing rate because of new law passed in the united states in 1996 which has effectively made helium too cheap to recycle. The experts warn that the world could run out of helium within 25 to 30 years, potentially spelling disaster for hospitals, whose MRI scanners are cooled by the gas in liquid form, and anti-terrorist authorities who rely on helium for their radiation monitors, as well as the millions of children who love to watch their helium-filled balloons float into the sky.
The experts warn that the world could run out of helium within 25 to 30 years, potentially spelling disaster for hospitals, whose MRI scanners are cooled by the gas in liquid form, and anti-terrorist authorities who rely on helium for their radiation monitors, as well as the millions of children who love to watch their helium-filled balloons float into the sky. Helium is used as a cryogen to cool down superconducting magnets for MRI machines. This is the largest use of cryogenic helium. This is one application where another cryogen can eventually be substituted because there are several new superconductors that can produce the required magnetic field when they are cooled with higher-temperature cryogens like liquid hydrogen, oxygen or neon. However, I doubt that hospitals and MRI machine manufacturers will make this move anytime soon. Helium is used as an inert gas for welding. In these applications, I think they could substitute another noble gas if we were to run out of helium.
Limit wasteful use of helium, and recycle that which we do use. For cryogenic applications, this means installing a closed re-circulation system to re-compress helium which comes out of the exhaust of a cryogenic system. For large-scale users such as the LHC, this has always been the operating procedure. However, with the recent cost hikes and supply disruptions, individual research labs are beginning to implement such systems as well. The startup costs are huge (over $100K), but the cost savings emerge in just a few years, and the convenience becomes apparent immediately. In the future, I think (and hope) that such systems will not be optional for research and medical users of liquid helium. Liquid helium is critical for cooling infrared detectors, nuclear reactors and the machinery of wind tunnels. The space industry uses it in sensitive satellite equipment and spacecraft, and NASA uses helium in huge quantities to purge the potentially explosive fuel from its rockets.
In the form of its isotope helium-3, helium is also crucial for research into the next generation of clean, waste-free nuclear reactors powered by nuclear fusion, the nuclear reaction that powers the Sun.
When the Cold War came along, it became even more important because of its uses in the purging of rocket fuel in intercontinental ballistic missiles. The national reserve was established in the porous rock of a disused natural gasfield 30 miles north of Amarillo, which soon became known as the Helium Capital of the World. We cannot produce more helium once it is all extracted from the earth.
All methods to produce more helium are so ridiculously costly that they are not worth discussing:
1) Hydrogen fusion
2) Bombarding other atoms (such as lithium or boron) with energetic protons in a particle accelerator
3) Mining it on the moon is a ridiculous proposition in terms of the volumes that are needed to be transported back to earth (mining Helium-3 on the moon is probably economically viable however).
In that sense, the problem of running out of helium is different from the problem of running out of petroleum. For the latter, people can and do synthesize alternatives such as ethanol fuel, not to mention the myriad non-carbon-emitting energy options out there. However, for many applications where helium is used, there is no alternative to helium.
- Cryogenic – .relating to or involving the branch of physics that deals with the production and effects of very low temperatures.