Did you know that the world was running out of helium?
Back in 2012, an article in Popular Mechanics magazine prophesied a coming global helium shortage. Many other sources agreed. But things have taken an optimistic tone of late.
Is Helium Rare?
Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe! But on Earth, helium is relatively rare. Helium makes up 5 parts per million of our atmosphere. Pretty low, right? In the earth’s crust, helium is only 8 parts per billion!
Helium is made by the breakdown of radioactive material – mostly uranium – in the earth’s crust. The breakdown is composed of alpha particles – which are basically helium nuclei (2 protons, 2 neutrons). Eventually, helium makes its way to groundwater and natural gas.
Natural gas deposits are the world’s source of helium. America’s natural gas deposits are especially helium-rich. The United States produces over half of the world’s helium, according to the USGS.
The Helium Shortage?
The U.S. National Helium Reserve at one time had over a billion cubic meters of helium, about half of the world’s reserves. The Reserve was founded in the 1920s, to be used in the nation’s (largely imaginary) fleet of airships. The Reserve was later used in the Cold War for rocket-fuel for nuclear missiles and spacecraft. The Reserve was comprised of five production plants and over 400 miles of pipes.
But that’s a lot of equipment to maintain. After the Cold War, the Reserve became too expensive and racked up over a $1 billion in debt. So in 1996, Congress decided to sell off the helium. Everything must go! The price of helium plummeted. Uses increased as prices decreased. It was so cheap, no one bothered with recycling.
Later, fear began to settle in the hearts of the scientific world. Helium is used in many scientific applications – like MRIs, industrial welding, fiber optic production, rocket fuel, etc. It is not what you would call a renewable resource. It escapes into outer space and is lost forever.
Helium Sales Today
So Congress changed its mind. In 2013, Congress passed the Helium Stewardship Act. In a nutshell, there are auction sales now – with a lot of legal hoopla – that now establish a better market price for helium, and in the process, spur private industry to start to pick up the slack. This will help pay off the Reserve’s debt faster. But there won’t be much of the Reserve left afterwards.
The Reserve’s size has diminished from over a billion cubic feet to less than 250 million cubic feet, according to the Bureau of Land Management’s last estimates. According to an article in the New York Times, the Reserve most likely won’t survive another 5 or 6 years.
So Now What
All is not lost, however. The shortage has inspired a lot of “helium prospecting.” According to a Newsweek article, a “world-class” natural gas field in Tanzania has an estimated recovery of over 54 billion cubic feet of helium. According to a press release by the European Association of Geochemistry, researchers in the western U.S. and Canada believe that the helium potential in wells has been greatly underestimated. For that matter, helium recycling is beginning to be a scientific norm. And the rising price of helium (doubling in the last 15 years) will create its own momentum for conservation.
The National Helium Reserve was fixture in the scientific community for almost a century. Its depletion created a huge, unnatural drop in helium prices. The new price shock – and ideas of shortage – are a natural result of the new market equilibrium. On the positive side, this could inspire not only new conservation and appreciation of this remarkable resource, but could also be the beginning of a new age of earth exploration…and a greater understanding of our natural world.
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Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.