Helium stocks run low and party balloons are to blame

Scientists fear that we might exhaust the world's helium supply in only 30 years.
Written by Ina Muri, Weekend Editor

Scientist lament that we're wasting our limited supply of the valuable gas on party balloons and squeaky-voice gags, The Week reports.

Helium is a remarkable gas that is used to make everything from telescopes to MRIs run smoother, and we are using so much of it that we're exhausting the world supply.

The supply is mostly contained in underground pockets that is dislodged by drilling for oil and gas. But at the rate we are using helium, scientists fear we could exhaust our supply in 30 years. In the early 20th Century the U.S. stockpiled billions of liters of gas because they were convinced that helium would play a major role in air travel and airship-based warfare.

As the future of airfare did not turn out quite like they envisioned in the 1920s, the U.S. began to sell off its helium surplus in the 1990s--at a much lower cost than the market price. Professor Robert Richardson of Cornell University estimates that if helium is sold at the correct market price, a party balloon would cost approximately $100.

Beyond making telescopes and MRIs, another reason for why helium is so valuable is that it can be cooled to the temperature of  -454 degrees Fahrenheit, which allow researchers to freeze atoms to the point where their vibrations slow down and they become easy to study. Further, in liquid form it can help keep nuclear reactors form overheating.

Dr. Oleg Kirichek, the leader of a research team at the Science & Technology Facilities Council in the U.K., had an unpleasant surprise last week when one of his key experiments--designed to probe the structure of matter--had to be cancelled because the facility ran out of helium.  "Yet we use it to make our voices go squeaky for a laugh" Kirichek told the Guardian. "It's very, very stupid. It makes me really angry."

Although helium is rare on Earth it is abundant in space as solar winds and soil on the moon, which is proven by analyses of lunar dirt brought home by the Apollos astronauts, Dr. Ian Crawford of University of London said. "So you could envisage the day when in becomes economic to build mines on the moon to supply us with helium. It just depends how expensive our own sources become."

[Via the Week]

Photo courtesy: Paul Burns/Getty  Images and Eric Raptosh Photography/ Blind I/ Blend Images/ Corbis

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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