Helium is a remarkable gas with many roles. During the week it can be used in the laboratory, making sure important equipment like telescopes and MRI machines run cool. On the weekends, helium likes to party, holding your balloons aloft and setting the mood for your sales and events. This kind of 'Burning the candle at both ends' is catching up with the gas however, and ultimately may see the end of helium on this planet.

According to some, the world may run completely out of helium gas within 30 years. Such an outage could have major implications on space travel and exploration, scientific and nuclear research, and even medical advances and early detection of diseases. Even today, these shortages mean longer lead times in the supply of helium.

To make the situation all the more frustrating is the way we are depleting this resource: selling the gas at unbelievable low prices for party balloons and other uses. The writing on the wall is clear: the world is running out of the precious gas at an alarming rate, and scientists worry if current conditions continue, we may have to travel, quite literally, to the ends of the Earth to find more.

Helium is a natural byproduct of petrochemicals and therefore, is a non-renewable resource. The gas is released during natural gas and oil drilling. Therefore, most of the gas are found in the mineral-rich south and southwest. If the gas is not captured, it is released into the air, making it impossible to recover.

From arc welders to MRI machines, helium is used to make machines run cooler, detect leaks, and pressurize tanks.

Sporting the lowest melting point of any element (-452 degrees Fahrenheit), helium is used to cool infrared detectors, nuclear reactors, and MRI equipment. Since helium is used in so many ways by so many fields, it’s been predicted that the Earth may run completely dry of the gas by the end of the 21st century.

In the 1920’s, between World Wars One and Two, the United States decided helium could be incredibly beneficial to the war effort. Seeing the potential need for air power in future wars, the United States government decided to stockpile the gas in very large quantities. Fast forward to 1996, and the United States was left with all of this helium gas stuck in bottles and pipes within a 250 mile radius around Amarillo, Texas, now the helium capital of the world. The US government passed the Helium Privatization Act in 1996 to sell off the helium stockpiles at a price significant enough to more than recover from their initial investment in the gas. The downside, however, is that this price does not reflect market value, meaning we can buy helium for much less than it is worth.

The problem now, according to top scientists, is we’ve become accustomed to buying this precious resource for much less than a premium.

Professor Robert Richardson of Cornell University, New York says “The basic problem is that helium is too cheap. The Earth is 4.7 billion years old and it has taken that long to accumulate our helium reserves, which we will dissipate in about 100 years. One generation does not have the right to determine availability for ever,” Richardson added.

In fact, professor Richardson estimates that the price of a single party balloon is much more expensive than you might think. He estimates that the gas inside a single party balloon may cost as much as £75.

In order to make helium users more aware and subsequently more careful about how they use the gas, Richardson also suggests marking the price of helium up by 20-50%. Richardson hopes that such an increase would encourage users to find ways to recycle the gas.

NASA, for instance, uses up to 75 million cubic feet annually, yet makes no attempt to recycle or recapture lost helium as they pressurize their rocket tanks.

Perhaps what makes such a shortage so painful is the fact that helium is the second most abundant resource in our universe (hydrogen is the first.) Even the wind from the Sun is comprised of helium and yet, due to our atmosphere, we cannot tap into it directly.

For now, scientists may have to put some of their tests and research on hold as our stock of helium is just as available and affordable for a children’s birthday party as it is for scientists trying to unlock the mysteries of the universe.

Source: Michael Harper for Redorbit.com

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