Preface. Turns out helium is needed for a lot more than party balloons, and like all resources, it is in decline. I learned that Stuff Runs Out early in life when we visited dozens of abandoned gold and silver mining towns on family vacations to the Southwest.
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity, XX2 report
Scientists are worried. Helium is the workhorse of chemistry, and shortages are forcing some experiments to shut down. There is no substitute, or way to synthesize it, though some can be extracted as a byproduct of natural gas.
At the rate we’re consuming helium, it will be gone in less than 200 years, or even sooner since the current administration plans to privatize the federal helium supply, hastening its depletion. We’re undoing the planets billions of years of helium production in just a few decades.
How the universes second most common element could have a shortage is bewildering, but that’s because when an underground field is discovered, it’s hard to trap and store, usually escaping. It’s hard to stockpile helium because of its inevitable escape from most containers. The best way to keep that from happening is to store it in a layer of dolomite over 3,000 feet below ground, where there’s a thick layer of salt keeping it in place.
There are very few locations it’s likely to be found, mainly the U.S. Qatar, and Algeria.
It takes hundreds of millions of years to produce any substantial quantities of helium underground. They build up where veins of these elements have been deposited, and lead to enormous underground reservoirs of helium. Once it’s extracted, we’d have to wait hundreds of millions of years again for these stores to replenish themselves.
- Nuclear magnetic resonance
- Deep sea diving
- Semiconductor industry
- Fiber optics
- Super-conducting magnets
- Development of pharmaceutical drugs
- NASA to separate fuels in rockets
- Radiation-detecting sensors
- Particle accelerators
- Coldest substance in the world: minus 450 F, useful for cooling applications
Baig, E., et al. 2019. Not just balloons: helium shortage may deflat MRIs, airbags, and research
Murphy, H. 2019. The global helium shortage is real, but don’t blame party balloons. New York Times
Pflum, M. 2019. Not just party city: why helium shortages worry scientists and researchers. CBS News.
Siegel, E., et al. 2019. Humanity is thoughtlessly wasting an essential, non-renewable resource: Helium. Forbes.