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Planet Earth

Nobel Prize Winner Warns World: We're Running Out of Helium

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The United States currently holds around half of the world's helium supply and we're selling it, for cheap. We've known this for a while. We started stockpiling the stuff near Amarillo, Texas in 1925, in part for dirigible use, and stepped up reserves in the 1960s as a Cold War asset. In 1996, Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act mandating that the United States sell the gas at artificially low prices to get rid of the stockpile by 2015. This February, the National Research Council published a report estimating that, given increasing consumption, the world may run out of helium in 40 years. That's bad news given helium's current applications in science, technology, and party decorations--and possible future applications in fusion energy. Now physicist Robert Richardson, who won a 1996 Nobel Prize for work using helium-3 to make superfluids, has come forward to stress the folly of underselling our supply of the natural resource. He suggested in several interviews that the gas's price should mirror its actual demand and scarcity. He estimates that typical party balloons should cost $100 a pop.

"They couldn't sell it fast enough and the world price for helium gas is ridiculously cheap," Professor Richardson told a summer meeting of Nobel laureates.... "Once helium is released into the atmosphere in the form of party balloons or boiling helium it is lost to the Earth forever, lost to the Earth forever," he emphasised. [The Independent]

If we don't heed Richardson's warning, here are some sources the United States might have to tap when we run out: The Air The current U.S. helium supply formed from billions of years worth of radioactive decay and accrued near uranium and thorium deposits. Though it's possible to separate helium out of the air, Richardson warns that it will cost a lot more. He toldNew Scientist:

"There is no chemical means to make helium. The supplies we have on Earth come from radioactive alpha decay in rocks. Right now it's not commercially viable to recover helium from the air, so we have to rely on extracting it from rocks. But if we do run out altogether, we will have to recover helium from the air and it will cost 10,000 times what it does today." [New Scientist]

Other Countries If we sell off all of our helium that means we'll likely have to import it later--and c0mpetition could be fierce. China and India's developing science and tech industries will also likely want a piece of the He pie.

Emerging powers such as China and India are ramping up helium-hungry activities like chipset fabrication, space programs, and cryogenic research.... Now, the NRC report warns, if the US does not soon cease selling off its reserves, within 10 to 15 years the country will be forced to import most of its helium from the only other near-term sources, gas fields in the Middle East and Russia. [Seed]

Other Planets Another place where helium occurs naturally is, of course, in the gas balls we call stars. Researchers think that the solar wind from our sun may have deposited some helium-3 on the moon's surface. If we use that up too, we could look a little further, say Uranus or Neptune, which have helium-rich atmospheres. We're guessing that the party balloon prices will suffer accordingly.

"The moon is the El Dorado of helium-3," says [futurist Marshall] Savage, and he's right: Every star, including our sun, emits helium constantly. Implanted in the lunar soil by the solar wind, the all-important gas can be found on the moon by the bucketful. Associate professor Tim Swindle and his colleagues at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona have already begun prospecting. Swindle has mapped likely helium-3 deposits on the moon by charting the parts of the lunar landscape most exposed to solar wind against the locations of mineral deposits that best trap the element. [Wired]

Related content: 80beats: A Blazing Hot Helium Rain Falls on Jupiter 80beats: Found: Primordial Magma From the Hot Dawn of the Earth 80beats: For a Real Blast, Strap a Nuclear Reactor to a Spaceship 80beats: Nature vs Solar Power: Environmentalists Clash Over the Mojave Desert

Image: flickr / Shiny Things

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