The ballooning shortage of helium
2010-08-30 0:00

By Sarah Barmak | TheStar.com



We usually think of it as the funny, lighter-than-air gas that makes balloons float and our voices squeak.

But those helium-filled party balloons are about to get a lot more expensive. Like uranium and oil, helium is running out. Created over billions of years, the earth’s supply could be gone in 25 to 30 years if we continue to waste it at its current rate, experts say.

The news has touched off a crisis in the science world, where the nontoxic, nonflammable substance holds the key to a myriad of scientific wonders, from modern medical diagnostics to the Large Hadron Collider.

Helium is a paradox: it’s everywhere and extremely rare at once. Next to hydrogen, it is the second-most abundant element in the universe, made inside stars. Yet on earth, it is hard to find: produced by the radioactive decay of rocks, most of it comes to us as a by-product of extracting natural gas, mostly in the American Southwest.

The world’s largest supply of helium is held in the U.S. National Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Tex., where it was stockpiled for use in military airships in the early twentieth century.

That store is being rapidly depleted, and scientists are worried. With its extremely low boiling point of 4.2 degrees above absolute zero (–269 degrees Celsius), liquid helium is the most important supercoolant used in science. NASA uses it to pressurize and clean rocket fuel tanks.

Its properties also make it valuable for cooling the magnets used in MRI scanners. A helium shortage would threaten millions needing MRI scans in hospitals worldwide.

Liquid helium is also key to manufacturing electronics, creating the controlled environments necessary to make semiconductors. It cools the superconducting magnets in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, which smashes protons together at nearly the speed of light.

Scientists have only begun to explore helium’s more exotic properties. When cooled down even further, it becomes a “superfluid”— a liquid without viscosity that can do seemingly impossible things, such as flow vertically up walls. Videos of liquid helium climbing up and over the sides of a container can be marveled at on YouTube.


Superfluid helium

Video from: YouTube.com


So what would be a more accurate price for a party balloon full of helium? Try $100, says Nobel laureate Robert Richardson, professor of physics at Cornell University.

At that price, the colourful display made by releasing hundreds of balloons would cost tens of thousands of dollars. It would be cheaper to pop hundreds of bottles of Veuve Cliquot.

A balloon’s journey into the sky illustrates why we’re losing helium so quickly. Once the balloon bursts — or once the gas escapes from a NASA rocket — the gas keeps on going up, up and away.

“Once it’s lost to the atmosphere, eventually it works its way into outer space and it’s gone forever,” says Darcy C. Burns, the associate manager of the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance facility, which also uses helium to cool its superconducting magnets, at the University of Toronto’s department of chemistry. Burns has become anxious about the future of the NMR since helium began becoming scarce.

“Liquid helium is used day-to-day in the sciences everywhere,” says Burns. “So it’s not just the helium itself that’s at stake, but our ability to do routine science all the way to novel discovery and innovation.”

So why are we letting a non-renewable element with unique physical properties literally float off into space?

Because the price of helium has been kept artificially low. A law passed in 1996 directed the reserve to sell off its helium by 2015, regardless of demand for it.

“(T)he consequence was that the market was swelled with cheap helium because its price was not determined by the market,” Richardson told The Independent.

An inquiry into the impending helium crisis convened by the U.S. National Research Council, part of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, recommended that the American government stop selling off its helium reserves at fire-sale prices. Richardson has said the price of helium should rise twentyfold to fiftyfold to reflect its true value.

It is possible to recycle helium. It can be trapped in its gaseous state—for example as it boils off a magnet warmer than it — and run through a helium recovery system, which repressurizes it back into its cool, liquid form, ready to be used again.

The Nuclear Magnetic Resonance facility in the University of Toronto’s Department of Chemistry goes through 60 to 100 litres every week. But it doesn’t use a helium recovery system because, they say, it’s much cheaper to buy it.

While the earth may have a finite amount of the element, the moon has abundant quantities of helium-3, an isotope deposited by solar wind. But what would be the price of a balloon, filled with helium from the moon?


Article from: thestar.com



Related Articles
World helium reserves are running out, Nobel laureate claims
National Helium Reserve - Wikipedia


Latest News from our Front Page

Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard to be released in November
2015-07-29 23:25
Parole board decides to release convicted spy after 30 years; Israeli officials deny claims that development is linked to the deal with Iran over its nuclear program. A federal parole board has ruled that Jonathan Pollard, a former US Navy intelligence officer convicted of spying for Israel, will be released in November after serving a 30-year prison sentence, his attorneys said ...
Swedish University removes all portraits and busts of White Male Professors
2015-07-29 23:51
Portraits and busts of all the “white male professors” have been removed from the part of Stockholm University, Sweden, which is dedicated to the study of Law. Not only have they be removed, but they have also been replaced by artwork which apparently promotes “diversity”. One of these is a drawing of a moose head colored with a rainbow. Dean of Stockholm University, ...
40% of Palestinian Children Detained by Israel Are Sexually Abused: Virtually All Are Tortured
2015-07-29 22:52
According to a new report by the independent, non-governmental, human rights organization the Palestinian Prisoners Club (PPC), at least 600 Palestinian children have been arrested in Jerusalem alone in the past five months. Of these, roughly 40% were sexually abused. PPC attorney Mufeed al-Haj notes that this horrific, grotesque abuse is not the only crime of which the Israeli military is ...
Barbara Lerner Spectre On Twitter!
2015-07-28 23:04
Kevin MacDonald writes in 2010: In the video below, Barbara Lerner Spectre, who runs a government-funded Jewish study group in Sweden, makes the following remarkable statement—remarkable because she does not attribute anti-Jewish attitudes to irrational prejudices or even Muslims who hate Israel. Instead she says that it’s because of the “leading role” played by Jews in the movement toward multiculturalism: “I think ...
Sweden investigating underwater wreckage as possible Russian submarine
2015-07-28 20:38
What may be the wreckage of a Russian submarine is seen off the coast of Sweden The Swedish military is studying a video taken by shipwreck hunters who say it shows a wrecked submarine, just off the country’s eastern coast, which appears to be Russian. Ocean X Team, the company behind the discovery, said on its website: “It is unclear how old ...
More News »