Depletion of Helium Reserves Not Just a Birthday Balloon Concern
Jun 04 2014
Most people only encounter helium when they want to buy balloons for a special occasion, or perhaps when they want to inhale the gas to speak in an abnormally high voice for comic effect. But the recent scarcity of helium is no laughing matter; as well as being used in party balloons, the gas is a vital component in lab experiments and other practical workplaces around the globe.
Helium was first extracted from the rock where it resides along with natural gas in Kansas in 1903. Since that time, our knowledge of the gas and its many practical applications has steadily grown to include all sorts of diverse fields. Because it can be chilled to almost zero in liquid form, it is the coldest liquid on Earth and as such a very useful tool, especially due to its stable and safe nature. Alternatives such as hydrocarbons gases are far more volatile and difficult to control.
Its main function in the world of science is in cryogenics, where it is used to cool the superconductor magnets used in MRI scanners. These cooling properties can also be used to cool nuclear reactors, and it is also a very common carrier gas used in laboratory experiments. In fact, its use is so widespread that prices are already skyrocketing in anticipation of it running out. China’s entrance into the industrial world, as well as refinery shutdowns around the globe have led to the demand for helium outweighing the potential supply.
Despite being the second most abundant observable element in the universe, on Earth it is in relatively short supply, at only 5.2 parts per million. The largest reserve of helium in the United States is a ten billion cubic feet quantity of the gas in Texas; however, this amount is expected to dwindle to three billion cubic feet in only a matter of years. Such a decline in its abundance has sparked growing concern amid the scientific community.
Aware of the impending exhaustion of the gas, many labs are looking for alternatives that are more sustainable. One such option is hydrogen, which although it has a higher flammability and therefore potential for accident, is viewed by many as a viable – and in some cases, preferable – alternative. The negative aspects of the gas can be offset with the use of a hydrogen generator, and it could prove to be a cost-effective solution that could even produce better sample outputs. For a closer look at the merits of hydrogen and its potential as a helium substitute, please see this article: How using Hydrogen Carrier Gas can Alleviate your Helium Supply Woes.
See also the white paper - The global helium shortage and why it’s so important for your industry
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