Helium is a peculiar resource, because we were granted vast reserves — but once those reserves get used, the helium is lost and gone forever. It’s a noble gas, and it’s lighter than air. If you let it out from underground, it floats away into space.
In America, helium is running out of gas.
The element that lifts things like balloons, spirits and voice ranges is being depleted so rapidly in the world’s largest reserve, outside of Amarillo, Tex., that supplies are expected to be depleted there within the next eight years.
This deflates more than the Goodyear blimp and party favors. Its larger impact is on science and technology, according to Lee Sobotka, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and physics in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Helium’s use in science is extremely broad but its most important use is as a coolant,” said Sobotka, a specialist in nuclear chemistry and physics who collaborates with researchers at several national laboratories.
Generally the larger users of helium (He ), such as the national laboratories, have the infrastructure to efficiently use and recycle helium, Sobotka said. The same cannot be said of many smaller scale users.
“Helium is non-renewable and irreplaceable. Its properties are unique and unlike hydrocarbon fuels (natural gas or oil), there are no biosynthetic ways to make an alternative to helium. All should make better efforts to recycle it. “
The helium we have on earth has been built up over billions of years from the decay of natural uranium and thorium. The decay of these elements proceeds at a super-snail’s pace. For example, one of the most important isotopes for helium production is uranium-238. In the entire life span of the earth only half of the uranium-238 atoms have decayed — yielding eight helium atoms per uranium atom in the process) and an inconsequential fraction decay in, say , 1, 000 years. As the uranium and thorium decay, some of the helium is trapped along with natural gas deposits in certain geological formations. Some of the produced helium seeps out of the Earth’s mantle and drifts into the atmosphere, where there is approximately five parts per million of helium. However ,this helium, as well as any helium ultimately released into the atmosphere by users, drifts up and is eventually lost to the earth.
“When we use what has been made over the approximate 4.5 billion of years the earth has been around, we will run out,” Sobotka said . “We cannot get too significant quantities of helium from the sun ¬— which can be viewed as a helium factory 93 million miles away — nor will we ever produce helium in anywhere near the quantities we need from earth-bound factories. Helium could eventually be produced directly in nuclear fusion reactors and is produced indirectly in nuclear fission reactors, but the quantities produced by such sources are dwarfed by our needs.”
Helium plays a role in nuclear magnetic resonance, mass spectroscopy, welding, fiber optics and computer microchip production, among other technological applications. NASA uses large amounts annually to pressurize space shuttle fuel tanks.