We Need Helium More Than Ever
We’re just a few years away from running out of one of our most important and rarest natural resources. It’s not oil or coal or rainforests or children.
Helium is the 2nd most abundant element in the universe but it’s extremely rare here on Earth.
And it’s not just for party balloons and making your voice sound funny. Helium is a crucial component to a whole range of medical devices and scientific instruments — from MRIs to rocket fuel to the large Hadron Collider. It’s important enough that the US has a national helium reserve.
But it could all be gone by 2020.
One night in 1903, the residents of the small town of Dexter, Kansas prepared to turn a geyser of natural gas into a towering pillar of fire as big and bright as their economic future.
They had just stumbled upon a large reservoir of natural gas underneath their tiny, agrarian community. The imminent arrival of industry and investment seemed a virtual certainty.
So in celebration for their newfound prosperity, the residents of Dexter, Kansas decided to set their discovery on fire.
Natural gas is largely methane and methane burns readily. So setting it ablaze should be easy.
But when they tried to light the gas, nothing happened. It stubbornly refused to burn.
Whatever was shooting out of the ground in Dexter wasn’t natural gas. It was something else entirely.
Something rarely seen on Earth.
Evidence for Helium’s existence was first identified in 1868 by French astronomer, Jules Janssen. While observing the sun during a solar eclipse, he found a bright yellow line in the spectrum of the sun’s chromosphere that didn’t quite align with any known element. That same year, English scientist, Norman Lockyer saw the same yellow spectral line while taking advantage of London’s thick smog to measure the Sun’s solar spectrum. He surmised that it was a new element found only on the Sun. He named it Helium, after the greek word for Sun, Helios.
In the next couple of decades, Helium would be found emanating from certain rocks and even volcanic eruptions — but only in small amounts. The vast reserves of this element seemed to be limited to the surface of the Sun.
A sample of the nonflammable gas found outside Dexter was sent to chemist Hamilton Cady at the University of Kansas. There, he found the sample contained a significant amount of an unknown inert gas.
Using a spectroscope, Cady saw — much to his surprise — the same bright yellow spectral line that Janssen and Lockyer had observed decades earlier on the surface of the Sun.
Meaning the gas had to be helium.
Which suggested that there was a massive reservoir of helium below the town of Dexter, KS — the first of its kind ever found on Earth.
As was observed a few decades before the discovery of the Dexter helium pocket, certain kinds of rocks emit Helium through radioactive decay. Most of this helium just floats away into outer space because it is lighter than surrounding air. But under the right circumstances, the helium can become trapped underground.
While the Dexter helium pocket was an important scientific discovery, there was no known practical use for the gas at the time.
So the residents of Dexter would never see the fantastic riches that the gas well initially promised.
But in just over a decade, helium would become of strategic importance to the US military.
World War One was in full swing, and for the first time in military history, the sky had become a theater of war. Blimps were a crucial military tool, carrying out reconnaissance missions and aerial bombing raids from the relative security of the air.
And blimps needed helium.
You could use hydrogen — which is much more plentiful — but it wasn’t as safe. It’s highly combustible — as the Hindenburg disaster would tragically demonstrate decades later.
On the other hand, helium is inert. It is a noble gas which means it doesn’t react with any other elements. And like the residents of Dexter, KS discovered, it doesn’t burn.
While helium is rare on Earth, in a stroke of good luck for the US military, large quantities of the gas just happen to exist underneath the Great Plains of North America.
So the US began stockpiling helium.
In 1925 the National Helium Reserve was established and the US soon became the world’s number one supplier of Helium. In fact, the US held a virtual monopoly over the gas.
But it isn’t just good for airships and blimps.
During the space race in the 1950s, liquid helium became a crucial to the production of rocket fuel, and by 1965, the US was using more helium than ever before.
Today its most common use isn’t in airships or party balloons but to cool superconducting magnets in MRI scanners and other medical and scientific instruments — including the largest machine in the world, the Large Hadron Collider.
First launched in 2008, the Large Hadron Collider is a particle accelerator — the most powerful of its kind. It promised to answer some of the biggest questions we have about the universe. What is it made of? How did it begin? And how did we get here?
But shortly after it was first activated, a helium leak shut down the Large Hadron Collider for months.
The gigantic superconducting magnets that make the particle accelerator possible depended on supercooled liquid helium to function. Without helium, the Large Hadron Collider is useless.
And we are running out of it.
Helium is non-renewable. It can’t be synthesized through any practical methods. So all the helium that escapes into outer space is helium that can never be recovered.
The National Helium Reserve is expected to be exhausted by 2020.
But that’s by design.
The Helium Privatization Act of 1996 mandated that the reserve be sold off. So in the intervening decades, the US has been flooding the market with cheap helium. This has discouraged active exploration for new helium deposits because if you can get helium so readily from the reserve, there’s no reason to go about drilling in the ground for it.
But in the last few years, as the reserve is depleted, the price of helium has been rising. This has caused many scientists who depend on the gas for their research to begin recapturing and recycling the gas — or abandon their work entirely.
But all is not lost.
There could be more helium deposits — we just haven’t been looking hard enough.
Just last year, a team of British researchers ventured deep into the Tanzanian Rift Valley to investigate a hunch.
Ever since the accidental discovery of helium outside Dexter, Kansas, all the helium we’ve ever discovered on Earth has been by accident or just a byproduct of natural gas exploration.
But you should be able to find helium deposits on purpose by searching for the right conditions in the Earth’s crust.
And that’s exactly what these researchers did.
In the East African Rift, seismic forces have been pulling the Earth’s crust apart for millions of years. The intense heat generated by this tectonic activity fosters the release of helium in the ancient molten rock.
If their estimates are correct, it could contain twice the amount of helium stored in the national helium reserve and keep our MRIs and particle accelerators supplied for years to come.
But the exact amount of helium is hidden within the Earth and we won’t know exactly how much we have left until we start drilling. And the longterm environmental impacts of large-scale helium mining are poorly understood.
But rising helium prices will only make the active exploration and exploitation of new helium deposits an increasingly lucrative venture — for better or worse.
Helium has been here since the very beginning of our universe.
It was forged in the first few minutes of the Big Bang, in the same energy soup that gave birth to everything we see today. As a consequence, its bright yellow spectral line can be seen all across the cosmos.
Yet here on Earth helium is rare and valuable and will remain so for the foreseeable future. But unlike other non-renewable resources, much of its worth comes from its scientific importance. Not only do its unique properties allow us to venture into space, they also let us peer inside of our bodies and into the very building blocks of the universe.
That knowledge — the discovery that helium makes possible — is what makes it so invaluable.
Watch the video: https://youtu.be/s9FhbLCOTok