23 August 2010

Helium Premium – Last Gasp for Noble Gas

You had better watch out if you collide particles at the CERN collider, clean rocket ships, fly your own airship, deep sea dive, operate an MRI scanner, date rocks or use a solar telescope.

The helium used in all of the above is fast running out – and it cannot be replenished.

Next time you nudge a clown sharply but surreptitiously on the arm for the wilful pleasure of watching all his helium filled balloons (along with his profits for the day) disappear in to the wild blue yonder spare a thought for the future generations for which this might not be one of life’s little pleasures.

Time is running out for our second lightest element, the noble gas is on its last gasp.  As a resource which is strictly non renewable it seems we have been stacking it too high and selling it too cheap for too long – metaphorically speaking.

Reserves of the gas are going to be exhausted in the near future and the ramifications are – to put it mildly – a tad serious.

Within a generation the world could, if we are not careful, run out of helium - and that would mean no more airships (of the non flammable variety at least).  It would mark the end of party balloons but it would also have significantly more serious overtones when you consider that MRI scanners that will no longer be able to operate without its cooling liquid presence.   At another level altogether, Charles Irving Bartowski and his ilk will no longer be able to use their radiation monitors on the lookout for dirty bombs planted in our cities.

Why is it running out? Helium is created in two ways.  The first is way out there, by the sun, so that’s not much good to us.  The second is by the slow decay of natural thorium and uranium.  By slow, imagine watching a snail cross a table for several million years – and then it only gets half way across.  The helium we have on the planet at the moment has taken billions of years to accumulate. The amount is finite.

It cannot (repeat cannot) be made artificially (except in nuclear fusion and the helium that results as a by product of this process is far too tiny an amount to be a realistic alternative).  Most of the reserves are on earth are the by product of natural gas extraction and the greatest concentrations have traditionally been in the South-west of the US. 

Those wishing to buy the gas have, more often than not, been shown the way to Amarillo. The largest reserve in the world is just outside the Texan town immortalised by the Tony Christie tune. The residents of neighboring Panhandle would argue it is in their back yard, however, but this vast underground reserve border both communities.  It isn’t that the US helium reserve is a monopoly – but almost as good as.  The bulk of the world’s reserves are kept there, carefully amassed by the US government over the years.

And there lies the rub, unfortunately.  Back in 1996 a little piece of legislation came in to being called the Helium Privatization Act.  The helium had, it was deemed, to be sold off in order to pay for the government’s investment in its accumulation – which bizarrely enough is exactly what has been happening.  Add to that the fact that the law of supply and demand is being ignored – an identical amount is sold every year, no matter what the global requirement and we have a balloon about to burst, as it were.

You may just made that noise that often comes out of Homer Simpson’s mouth, because you have just worked out that – at the moment and as a result of the act – helium is way, way too cheap and consumed lavishly, with little thought for the future.

Professor Robert Richardson who is a Professor of Physics at Cornell has recently co-chaired, with Charles G. Chip Groat an enquiry into where all the helium is going.  They came to the same conclusion.

Their recommendations?  Firstly to encourage recycling the helium used at the moment; NASA, such which uses it to clan rocket fuel tanks does not do this at the moment.  Then, to increase the price of the gas by up to fifty times its current price so that it will no longer be seen as a commodity that can be squandered anymore. 

That goes for party balloons too.  Boys and girls, carpe diem!

Additional Image Credits
Girl flying using helioshere - Flickr User davosmith
Girl with balloons - Image Credit Flickr User Lil Larkie