Will We Have A Lack of Helium Around the World?

Updated on February 9, 2017
1701TheOriginal profile image

Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly improve it.

Source

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).

Helium tanks.
Helium tanks. | Source

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).

Works Cited

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

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)