Helium Shortage Leaves Scientists In No Mood To Celebrate

Michael Harper for Redorbit.com

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. 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.

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.

Knowing how important this gas is to science and future research makes Professor Robert Richardson of Cornell University, New York, quite unhappy.

In a report by the US National Research Council, an arm of the US National Academy of Sciences, Richardson had this to say: “In 1996, the US Congress decided to sell off the strategic reserve and the consequence was that the market was swelled with cheap helium because its price was not determined by the market. The motivation was to sell it all by 2015,” according to a report by The Guardian‘s Robin McKie.

“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 $100.

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.

We can, however, pull helium from lunar soil, reports McKie.

Some researchers estimate that a new gold rush era could form, breeding a new kind of futuristic prospector digging in lunar soil for helium-3, a gaseous sort of gold. Helium-3 is the second type of stable helium available on the Earth and is very rare on the Earth´s surface. It is plentiful in lunar soil, however, and scientists believe sides of the moon that have a higher exposure to solar winds could be a veritable gold mine for helium-3.

Rock samples brought back from Apollo spaceships and mineralogical maps brought back by the Clementine spacecraft show that these areas of the moon are helium-3 enriched and high in titanium dioxide.

Armed with this evidence and research, Drs. Jeffrey R. Johnson of the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona; Timothy S. Swindle of the University of Arizona´s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson; and Paul G. Lucey of the University of Hawaii´s Institute of Geophysics and Planetology in Honolulu have developed a helium-3 map of the Moon.

Armed with this gas, research for helium-3 fusion can begin. Helium-3 fusion is already seen as a viable, green and renewable energy resource. As such a light and powerful gas, it could be used in any number of ways. For example, NASA could use the gas to propel their rockets to space with more power than currently harnessed. Marshall Savage, an amateur futurist and author of “The Millennial Project: Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps, says rockets ““¦could get to Mars in a weekend, instead of seven or eight months.”

Swindle and team´s mapping of helium-3 deposits on the moon´s surface is just the beginning of helium prospecting. In the end, Swindle suggests that we´ll be using helium-3 to transport ourselves as far as Neptune and Uranus to find even larger deposits of this precious gas. 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.