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The Importance of Helium and the Helium Shortage

Updated on February 1, 2014
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Science, nature and the environment, with regard to human impact, are subjects to which Chris applies his passions for research and writing.

Helium

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Author's Note

This is the first of four articles on the subject of helium. I have learned the following as a result of my research:

  1. There are two forms of helium, helium-3 and helium-4
  2. This Article is strictly about helium-4 which is plentiful on earth
  3. Helium-3 is rare on the earth but plentiful on the moon and asteroids.
  4. Helium-3 is the focus of the following two articles: Mining the Moon for Helium-3 and
    Mining the Moon for Helium-3: Part 2.

If you are like me, when you think of helium, the first thing to come to mind is helium party balloons. Second is the squeaky voices at the party. Another thing I think of is blimps. Beyond that, I’ve never given helium much thought, until I sat down to right this article of course.

Of all the elements on the periodic table and in the universe, helium is the second most abundant and the second lightest. Helium appears in nature as helium-3 which is rare and helium-4 which is abundant. These are two ions of the same element. Hydrogen takes the blue ribbon as the lightest and most abundant. With so much helium-4 around, we might not consider that there could ever be a helium shortage, but there is. Part of the reason for the shortage is the many uses of this important chemical element.

Video of Rep. Doc Hastings (R) Washington on H.R. 527, Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act.

The health care industry uses helium-4 to detect, diagnose and treat many diseases and conditions. Most of the uses of helium take advantage of its cooling effect. Here are just a few examples:

  • Cooling electromagnets in MRI machines.
  • Cooling laboratory cryostats used to freeze fresh tissue during surgery so that it can be cut into extremely thin sections and used for diagnosis.
  • Treating heart, asthma, cancer and burn patients.
  • Scuba tanks.
  • Nuclear reactors.
  • Gas chromatography
  • Particle accelerators.
  • Certain types of welding.
  • Silicon wafers for semiconductors.

Important Use of Helium 4 in Hospital Laboratories

Biological microtome cryostat for cutting "frozen sections" of biopsies during surgical procedures.  The author of this article operates one of these on a regular basis in his vocation as a Histology Technician.
Biological microtome cryostat for cutting "frozen sections" of biopsies during surgical procedures. The author of this article operates one of these on a regular basis in his vocation as a Histology Technician. | Source

The amount of helium-4 the world uses is only half the story concerning the shortage of helium-4 today. There is a lot of helium-4 waiting to be mined. It is a by product of natural gas located in the Texas panhandle. If there is so much of this gas around, why is there a shortage of helium-4?

Because of the abundance of helium-4 in Texas, the U.S. government established a stockpile of the gas in 1925 for use in national defense. The surplus still exists near Amarillo, Texas and is overseen by the U.S. Navy and the Department of the Interior. The government has also sold helium-4 to the rest of the world at artificially reduced rates and for decades held a monopoly on helium-4 production.

National Helium Reserve

The Federal Helium Stockpile located outside Amarillo Texas is a little-known resource owned by U.S. citizens that is virtually inaccessible.
The Federal Helium Stockpile located outside Amarillo Texas is a little-known resource owned by U.S. citizens that is virtually inaccessible. | Source

Here is the Whole Story. Selling the Nations Helium Reserve

Will Helium-3 be the Clean, Safe, Abundant Fuel of the Future?

The shortage of helium-4 is an artificial shortage that can be resolved rather easily. But there are applications for which helium-4 is the wrong form of this element. Helium-3 is quickly becoming the fuel of choice for providing all the energy a country and world needs. This energy would be produced by harvesting the release of energy that occurs when two atoms are slammed into each other and fuse together. This is called fusion, and yes, it is nuclear power. The difference between using helium3 in nuclear power as opposed to the traditional uranium, is that helium is not nearly as unstable as Uranium. It is a minimally radioactive element. When used to produce energy, helium-3 would let off very low amounts of radiation before, during or after process. Currently, with uranium, it is necessary to construct a facility that contains all radiation. After the uranium is depleted, it remains dangerously radioactive and must be stored indefinitely. There story about helium-3 is told in the following related articles. Mining the Moon for Helium-3: Part 1 and Mining the Moon for Helium-3: Part 2.

In 1960, the U.S. federal government took steps to begin shifting helium-4 production to the private sector. The price of helium-4 purchased from the government, though still low, has experienced wide fluctuations over the years since 1960. This has made it difficult for companies which use the gas, to establish budgets for purchasing it. In 1996 the federal government attempted to put into effect a plan which would have gotten it out of the helium-4 business altogether by 2015.

The second half of the story concerning the shortage of helium-4 has to do with the low prices the government continues to charge the rest of the world for this important gas. The private sector is dragging its feet when it comes to increasing helium-4 production because it can’t compete with the governments low prices. As a result, the U.S. federal government is not likely to be able to cease helium-4 production by 2015. At the same time that the world is failing to increase helium-4 production in the private sector, the government's surplus is running low. If the U.S. government runs out of helium-4, so does the health care industry and every other industry in the world. This is the true source of the worldwide helium-4 shortage.

There is a solution to this dilemma. If the government begins selling helium-4 at market prices, then private companies will be able to compete and will step up their own production. The desired result would be twofold. First, the government would be able to get out of the helium-4 business. Second, private enterprise would increase its output of helium-4, thereby solving the helium shortage problem.

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    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 2 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      em_saenz, Helium4 can be collected on earth. It is found in the air around us at about 5 parts of helium per 100,000 parts of air. Much higher concentrations are found underground where uranium (radioactive) is decaying. This process of decay produces huge pockets of helium4. By drilling down to this pocket, the helium is collected as it escapes toward the surface.

      Helium3 is extremely rare on earth. While it can be engineered in labs, this method is not practical for large quantities. Helium3 is found in stars such as our sun. The helium is ejected from the sun and it is then attracted to the moon by the force of gravity. It is believed that large quantities of helium3 will be discovered on the moon.

      Thanks for reading and for the question. I hope this helps.

    • em_saenz profile image

      em_saenz 2 years ago from Europe

      Great hub. How is helium obtained?

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Hi That Grrl, I am actually writing the follow up to this article as we speak. In one word, Moon. The helium on earth is a helium 4 isotope. While that is fine for certain applications, it would not work for nuclear energy. That requires the helium 3 isotope. There is almost none on the earth, but may be plenty on the moon. I'll be posting the article in the next couple of hours.

    • That Grrl profile image

      Laura Brown 4 years ago from Barrie, Ontario, Canada

      I'm not sure how it is actually produced. Is it a by-product of the natural gas and will it run out the way oil and gas already are? Or, can helium be created - in a man made way?

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Thanks bethperry for stopping to read my hub. This is one of those things we don't expect isn't it? Nice to see you again.

    • bethperry profile image

      Beth Perry 4 years ago from Tennesee

      What a surprising and fascinating article!

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Thanks Larry for stopping by. Helium is the second lightest element. In gas chromatography it is used as a carrier of the vaporized compounds. Helium has a lower mass than argon and diffuses ten times faster. The next big thing with helium is the mining of the moon. Private sector enterprises are lining up for the chance to be first.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 4 years ago from Northern California

      Hi cam8510. You've written a very informative hub. Here's my stooopid question of the day:

      What about replacing the helium in gas chromatography with another inert gas, argon? If I remember correctly, argon comprises about 1% of our atmosphere.

      Voted up and interesting.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      RachaelLefler, according to my reading, no, not to any degree that would help with the shortage. The U.S. government came up in my reading often as the supplier who had a monopoly on helium production. Good question. Thanks for stopping by. Oh, and the moon is where private industry is looking now. Everybody wants in on mining the moon....seriously.

    • RachaelLefler profile image

      Rachael Lefler 4 years ago from Illinois

      My question is, aren't there other countries that are producing helium?

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