Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.
Up, Up, and Away
Everyone can see that a helium balloon floats upward and if it is not tethered to anything, will rise away into the sky. This is because helium is less dense than air, which is mostly made of nitrogen and oxygen with other minor gases mixed in. It is analogous to the relationship between oil and water, where oil floats on water because less molecules per area exist in oil. With helium, however, it can not be recovered once released into the atmosphere, because all that less dense material exists way up in the atmosphere, slowly being lost forever to the depths of space. Since only a certain amount can be harvested on Earth, like crude oil, it will run out. But when? (McClatchy, Parker)
The Numbers Speak for Themselves
Helium was first mined during the First World War when it was found to be a safe alternative to hydrogen in aircraft use. This is because hydrogen gas is extremely flammable as it readily combines with oxygen when provided with a heat source. Helium, however, is rather inert because it processes all the electrons it desires and so doesn't like to form compounds. In the case of warfare it helps to not surround oneself with a highly combustible material, especially when one finds many situations to be combusted! The U.S. began to hoard the helium it collected in the 1960s and by 1991 the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve stood at 32 billion cubic feet. In 1996, Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act, selling the helium to the highest bidders in an attempt to earn a profit on their reserve (which had up to that point remained a deficit), with the expectation that all the helium will be sold by 2015, and so that the helium market could transition to the private sector and out of government (and therefore tax money) (McClatchy, Parker).
Instead, it created a depreciation in the value of the helium which drove costs down and thus prevented the competition necessary for the private sector to succeed. Congress tried to remedy this in 2013 with a new bill but it has only made the situation worse. As of 2008, the Reserve stood at 19 billion cubic feet and continued to drop but because of these goofs, the expected run out date has actually been extended (fortunately). By 2020, five years later than planned, it is estimated that the U.S. will completely run out of helium (Zhang, Magill).
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The Science That Will Hurt
Sure, no helium means no rising balloons, but from a more practical standpoint other science is hurt. Helium in a liquid state helps keep instruments cooled to the point where more accurate measurements can be taken, for molecular motion is reduced at the over -400 degrees Fahrenheit that the helium would exist in. Medical equipment also makes use of super cooled helium (Zhang).
The Possible Solutions
The U.S. plans to buy its helium from other producers such as Russia, Algeria, and Qatar once the Reserve is depleted and has transferred to the private sector, but this only prolongs the problem of running out of the precious gas. Within 40 years those resources may also be gone. Helium is produced naturally though the decay of radioactive elements, but considering the age of the Earth (roughly 4.5 billion years) and the time that it has taken to deplete it, this is not a viable option to depend on for our lifetime. University of Texas at Austin research engineer Charles Savage is currently developing technology that can capture used helium and liquefy it, all at a price of $150,000 per unit. Some scientists think that raising the price of helium (currently about 75 cents per balloon, or 2 liters) to about $100 per balloon will deter people from buying it for recreational purposes and will help in conservation as well as inspiring more recycling programs. As space technologies progress, the possibility of mining helium on the Moon arises as well as the Jovian planets, though the transportation of it remains a problem. Unless something is done soon, however, helium will be but a memory for generations to come (McClatchy, Parker).
Magill, Bobby. "Why Is There A Helium Shortage?" popularmechanics.com. Hearst Digital Media, 25 Jun. 2012. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.
McClatchy. "Helium Reserve Is Running out" Cleveland.com. 24 July 2011. Web. 03 Aug. 2011.
Parker, Gretchen. "Bye-Bye, Helium." National Geographic 219.2 (2011). Print.
Zhang, Sarah. "The Feds Created a Helium Problem That's Screwing Science." wired.com. 15 Jul. 2015. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.
© 2011 Leonard Kelley