When people think about non-renewable natural commodities they rely on, helium isn’t usually at the top of that list. But the effects of dwindling reserves are beginning to be felt. While the colourless gas is most often associated with floating party balloons and high-pitched voices, helium has other several important applications. The most common global use is for cryogenics, the branch of physics that deals with very low temperatures. Most notably, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) instruments cannot function without the extremely cold temperatures (‑269 ̊C and lower) provided by helium in its liquid form. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN and other important scientific instruments also depend on large amounts of helium for cooling, as there is no known safe alternative to reach such low temperatures. Helium is also used in welding, the manufacturing of goods such as LCD televisions, and microchips, and for purging liquid hydrogen fuel systems. The last item on this list makes NASA the world’s largest single consumer of helium, at almost 75 million cubic feet (or 2.12376 million cubic metres) per year.
Helium is the second most common element in the universe after hydrogen, but here on earth it is rare. The gas's low density — the same property that allows balloons to float effortlessly — means that once released, helium rises and eventually escapes out of our atmosphere into space. Indeed, helium was not discovered in significant quantities on Earth until the early twentieth century, when it was found in natural gas fields in the U.S. In 1925, the U.S. government set up the only helium storage facility in the world to protect its resources. At this time the U.S. saw helium as a valuable commodity for airships and the resource became more important during the space race of the fifties and sixties. By the late nineties, however, storage was no longer a priority and the government began to sell its reserves. The sell-off provided a steady flow of helium at artificially low prices, preventing production from keeping pace as demand grew. The reserve, from which all sales will cease in 2015, currently supplies roughly one-third of the global demand.
Extraction from natural gas remains the only accessible source of helium. There are still significant quantities of helium below ground — most notably in the U.S., Qatar, Algeria, and Russia — but extraction is not trivial, and it takes several years for an extraction facility to move from the planning stages to production. Several new plants are being established worldwide, but it’s unlikely they will be functioning early enough to prevent a greater shortage. Continued demands on a fading supply could lead to increases in the operating costs of MRIs and other scientific instruments, as well as costly shutdowns. This is already happening: At the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the U.K., researchers lost US$142,000 when neutron beamline experiments had to be cancelled for three days due to a lack of helium. Awareness of the issue is growing, however, and there are now calls to establish an international oversight body to expand helium production and set up new reserves to address shortages, present and future. Some experts are suggesting that MRI and research should be given priority over other more trivial uses. If the current shortage continues, the floating party balloon may soon become a relic of past.
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