Science & Tech Editor
Many may be taking for granted the gas which fills our party balloons and causes those squeaky little voices we all know and love. Helium, a naturally occurring, odorless, colorless and tasteless gas, is the second most common element in the universe after hydrogen. Its abundance on Earth, however, is nil compared to its abundance beyond the planet’s atmosphere, and the rate at which we are burning through our stockpiles of the nonrenewable gas has become a growing concern.
Helium is produced as a by product of nuclear decay from heavy metals such as uranium or thorium within the Earth. The radiation from these elements results in alpha particle emissions that become the nuclei of helium atoms. Most of the helium gas produced remains in pockets mixed with other natural gases, which can be harvested by mining, while some of the helium gas escapes into Earth’s atmosphere and further into space.
The raw, extracted natural gas mixture containing many impurities, like helium, must be purified for commercial use. After purification, commercial helium is then obtained upon further refinement. The U. S. is the largest supplier of helium, and it has been stockpiling helium inside a National Helium Reserve outside of Amarillo, Texas since the 1960s.
Once all the helium stores are depleted from the Earth, the gas can no longer be produced naturally. It is possible to create more helium, but the methods are extremely costly. Such possible but expensive options are fusing two hydrogen atoms together or bombarding other atoms with high-energy protons. The soil on the moon analyzed after the return of the astronauts from the Apollo mission contained an abundance of helium, which may point to the moon as a possible helium source for the future. Mining helium stores from the moon in order to replenish what has already been exhausted on Earth is preposterous, however, due to the volume that would need to be transported back to Earth.
At the rate which helium is being consumed, scientists have growing concerns that the helium supply and reserves could be depleted within 30 years. With the ability to cool to -454 degrees Fahrenheit, helium is a very useful gas that allows researchers to study atoms when they are frozen in place and easy to observe.
Other applications for helium are as a cooling mechanism in MRI machines, as an inert gas for welding, as an inert gas in the semiconductor industry and as leak detection for testing containers subjected to high pressure or low vacuum. Unlike other nonrenewable resources, such as petroleum, helium has no other alternatives. Therefore, new ways to decrease the amount of helium consumed are being enacted.
Limiting wasteful use of helium and finding ways to recycle the gas will decrease the amount of helium used inefficiently. For example, in the semiconductor industry, re-circulation systems could be implemented,where they are not already, to catch the exhaust and re-compress helium. Other options include studying ways to more efficiently store and harvest helium as well as to sell at or above its market value.