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Help! The world is running out of helium and it is not renewable.
S T O P P R E S S:
Slashot just ran a story on this 24/9/12 http://science.slashdot.org/story/12/09/23/0518247/scientists-speak-out-against-wasting-helium-in-balloons
Helium is leaking away forever.
Those cheap party balloons and high-voice tricks that we do could, in a couple of hundred years or less be derided in history as an example of one of our most ignorant wastes of natural resources.
You see, there is no way to synthesise helium.
That simple statement should shock you. There is no way to make helium in nature or in the laboratory. One more time: Once it's gone, it's really gone. Helium is the second lightest element and it is inert. Since it is an element, it has unique characteristics which implies that there are things we can do with Helium that we cannot do with anything else. Once released to the atmosphere, most floats off into space and never returns. It's only replaced very slowly over billions of years by natural radioactive decay.
Although it is the second most abundant element in the universe, it is relatively rare on Earth.
Most of the helium reserves are in America because of a WW2 strategy to stockpile and iby chance, America has salt domes formed above deposits of granite. Helium is trapped there in the Earth. Yet it's depletion is not local to America. It is of global concern. Let's look at a few important uses for a recyclable finite resource that we stupidly never recycle.
Uses for helium.
You can think of Helium as being devoid of chemistry because it is totally inert. It's essentially a place-holder between Hydrogen and Lithium. But for industries that work with highly reactive materials, this characteristic is essential.
- If you get an MRI at a hospital - that's helium used for cooling the magnets.
- The world's largest physics experiment: The LHC relies on helium for cooling.
- Divers need a helium mix for deep water dives.
- Airships use it. The alternative hydrogen is explosive and dangerous.
- Helium-Neon lasers (bar code readers).
- Superfluid experiments.
- Detecting leaks. (The molecule is so small it can find any leak in a vessel).
- It's a carrier gas in gas chromatography.
- Helium discharge tubes.
- Helium is involved with nuclear fusion experiments.
- Helium mass-spectrometer.
- Helium-dating of rocks.
- It's an ingredient of rocket-fuel.
- Specialist welding - the gas shields the work from oxidation.
- Silicon and Germanium ingots are used to make electronics and are grown in helium gas because it is inert.
The Helium Privatization Act of 1996
This is a most baffling piece of legislation. It represents the worst of economic greed, ignorance and short-sightedness.
Isolating helium comes as a by-product of liquefaction of natural gas. The resulting helium may then be stored. It's rather difficult to store because the atoms are so small and the geological conditions for effective storage are globally rare. Kansas is a good site.
Simply put the act says, "Helium production cost too much - so sell off the stockpile so we can recoup some of the expense."
Amazingly, there seems to be a deadline to do this. So the price of helium has been forced into a situation that you might find during a glut. This is unusual for a finite resource because it means the price is kept very low even when the resource is depleting. The economic cause of this pseudo glut is
a) because of the size of the stockpile in the salt-domes;
b) the US government has released the sale of the stockpile to the free-market.
Therefore, it is as if there is an over-supply, and it is as if it were a renewable resource. But it's not renewable. You can't fight physical laws and win.
Bad news, good news, ultimately bad news.
Bad news everyone: At 2008 rates of consumption, we had only a 25-year supply.
Good news everyone: Consumption has slowed and the state of total depletion has pushed out to a 100-year supply.
Bad news everyone: Once it's gone, it's really gone.
Robert Richardson's solution - at least a temporary reprieve is to increase the price by a factor of 20 today. His reasoning is that non-controlled natural demand and supply in a few decades will force the price into a state of thousands of times more expensive. It would seem therefore prudent to force the price up now and make recycling economically viable.
Have your vote.
Should the price of Helium be government controlled?
What about legislation?
Perhaps another solution, or an extra measure would be to impose a law that demands Helium be recycled. On the negative side, you would not be able to comply with your party balloons and tricks, but most heavy users could comply.
Recently the welding industry started to use Argon instead of Helium, so that major use is moot. Perhaps we should also start more research into substitute systems for jobs that are accomplished currently with helium. But is there, for example, a substitute refrigerant for MRI and LHC and super-conduction experiments? At least a recycling law would help to dramatically slow down leakage of this precious gas.