Highway to He: The Nonrenewable Resource No One’s Talking About

Article by: Carlos Po

When you think of helium, things that probably come to mind are memories of balloons suspended in the air, and inhaling the pocket of gas to make yourself sound funny. But do you think of uranium? The National Helium Reserve? Treating patients? You should, and you should start taking helium more seriously. This gas sold at party stores everywhere is far more useful than you might think, and our limited supply is slowly trickling down.

When Earth was formed, the crust and core were filled with elements like radon, thorium, and radium. Because these elements are all unstable, they began to decay, and after billions of years, a process known as alpha decay produces a helium particle. As a result, most of the world’s helium reserves are mined underground. However, these unstable elements are not renewable, meaning helium unfortunately isn’t either. The United States government took this into consideration and formed the National Helium Reserve in 1925. Despite storing over 1 billion cubic meters of the gas, the National Helium Reserve is being sold off by the United States government, as it provides 35% of the world’s helium needs and is a valuable economic resource the country is currently using to pay off its debt.

But why should you or I care? Balloons on the ground at parties? As it turns out, helium has many scientific uses as well. With a uniquely low boiling point, helium is used as a coolant in many industrial settings, with liquid helium being used to cool down the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. It is also a vital component in magnetic resonance imaging technology (MRI), a type of scanner used to analyze the inside of a patient’s brain in a non­invasive manner. Liquid helium is used to cool down the giant magnets that power the scanner after use. So unless you fancy having your head cut open and sewn back together, conserving helium is especially important in this day and age.

Helium is also being studied by medical researchers for its use in treating certain breathing disorders, like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), and bronchiolitis. As the supplies of helium run lower and lower, governments have begun to raise its price in response. Back in 1966, the price of helium in the United States was $43.00 per 1,000 cubic feet. Come 2015, the price of helium is now $75.75 per 1,000 cubic feet, and as supplies continue to dwindle, this number can only go up. Some physicists for whom money is an issue are being forced to cease use of equipment relying on helium, such as specialized refrigerators.

Helium has the potential to become the petroleum of tomorrow, with the world keeping its careful conservation in mind. So, while you may still be in high school, if you plan to give your hypothetical children the best future possible, make a smart investment and start stockpiling balloons full of helium now.

Works Consulted