Helium is one of the gases we’re most familiar with – who hasn’t played with a helium party balloon or sucked helium into their mouths to make their voices high pitched? The problem is that helium is a finite resource and, some scientists are worried that if we waste all of our helium on parties, there could easily come to a point in the future when we look back and wonder what on earth we were doing.
Scientists predict that at current rates, the earth’s stock of helium could be completely gone between 2030 and 2040.
All About Helium
Helium is naturally occurring, and forms when radioactive rocks start to decay. Most
helium which we use is produced as a by-product of the gas refining industry. Helium is stored in bulk until it needs to be used. The world’s biggest producer and storer of helium is the United States, and their largest store of helium in Texas accounts for over a third of the world’s entire stock of helium. Back in the 1920s, the US set up their helium store in order to power airships but since then technological advances mean that nowadays we’re using helium in magnets in MRI scanners, computer chips and semiconductors. Helium has one of the lowest boiling points of all gases, and this means it is the only gas suitable for providing the liquid “jacket” which runs around MRI scanners and keeps the superconducting magnets at the incredibly low temperature of just four degrees above absolute zero. You’ll even find helium cooling the magnets in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Rising levels of demand, coupled with a gradual selling-off of the stocks of excess helium held across the world, means that the price of helium has doubled in the last decade. You don’t have to search online for very long to see that for several years now, scientists have been predicting that it won’t take long before we run out of helium completely.
There are a few things which are being done to tackle the potential helium shortage before the situation becomes acute. The first is a move from the historical method of finding helium which was purely by accident. Increasing demand for use in scanners and other important equipment means we can no longer rely on the chance discovery of helium while prospecting for oil or gas. Using the same technology used to prospect rocks and carry out geological surveys to find oil, scientists are now actively scanning the surface of the planet to find deposits of helium. This approach appears to be working too; a team from the University in Oxford announced in June 2016 that they had discovered enough helium below the ground in Tanzania to fill 600,000 Olympic swimming pools and meet the world’s demands for around 7 years. The team are hoping to use the same techniques successful in the Tanzania discovery to identify other areas of the globe which could also be hiding valuable reserves of this precious gas.
While some geologists are actively scanning the earth’s surface for helium-bearing rocks, others are looking at the problem from the opposite angle. A team from one of the UK’s largest manufacturers of MRI scanning equipment is researching other cooling methods for their machines which don’t rely on helium gas. Research is still in the early stages and a helium-free MRI scanner is still quite some way off. However, this joint approach of seeking out new supplies and research into viable alternatives could buy us a bit more time.
Once we’ve exhausted the earth’s natural supply of helium that’s it – we can’t make more. Scientists are not being complacent, and no idea is considered too wacky when it comes to maximising helium stocks. It’s known that Jupiter’s atmosphere has a large proportion of helium gas, and even though the helium only accounts for 10% of the planet’s mass, the huge size of the planet means that Jupiter is the largest store of helium in the entire solar system. In the future could we see helium being collected from Jupiter’s gassy atmosphere and then brought back to earth? It’s certainly not something we’re going to see in the next couple of decades, but scientists believe this could be commonplace in the future, and could solve all of our problems with helium supply for once and for all.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24903034 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/helium-shortage-could-be-solved-by-new-life-saving-discovery-a7106906.html https://www.newscientist.com/article/2095196-huge-newfound-deposit-of-helium-will-keep-mri-scanners-running/ http://www.mrsolutions.com/news-events/news-item/new-technology-mr-solutions-mean-children-can-still-helium-party-balloons-future/ http://www.space.com/18385-jupiter-atmosphere.html