Should We Worry About Helium Running Low?
In the late 80’s to early 90’s, most people never gave helium much thought. and certainly few if any people regarded it as a precious resource. We inhaled it to make funny voices, and we used it to fill rubber sacks that would float away. But science and many industries have always had a greater and more serious use for helium.
So, should we worry about helium running low? We here at US Gas in Chicago, IL certainly have a vested interest in the helium supplies in the world. After all, our business is about supplying Chicago and the surrounding area with high quality medical gases, industrial gases, specialty gases and more. So let’s explore this question: “Is helium running low and, if so, why?”
Should We Worry About Helium Running Low?
Helium has proven to be both fun and exceptionally useful. However, it is not in endless supply. Though it ranks as the second most abundant element in the universe, there is not an endless, regenerating supply of the gas. With new advances in engineering, technology, medicine, and industry in general, the uses for helium have become even more in demand, and the helium supplies in the world are falling behind this demand.
We can now see clearly that we, as a population, are using more helium than we produce each year. The fact is, we face a situation where helium running low is becoming a very big issue. But why is this happening and what can be done to fix it?
While the problem of diminishing helium supplies might mean fun party balloons are at risk, an even more pressing issue is that medical equipment and advanced technologies that we rely on today could be in jeopardy.
Many things from the Large Hadron Collider to spot welding shops use specially formulated liquid helium as a super-cooling material. It is easy to work with, and provides cooling to important components, parts of machines, and systems such as the super-magnets that power modern MRI machines. In fact, medical imaging and other medical applications accounts for up to a third of the helium usage worldwide. Helium running low could become a serious issue, if helium levels dip too dramatically.
The crazy thing is, there actually is plenty of helium. But most of it is contained in outer space among the stars. Here on Earth, helium-being a very light gas-will quickly rise into the atmosphere, making it a difficult element to collect. This might beg the question of, “how can helium running low be a problem if it’s held in our atmosphere?”
Concentrations in the atmosphere are too low to make harvesting worthwhile, which means it must be harvested from its origins under the earth’s crust and collected before it reaches the atmosphere. This difficult harvesting process alone can show why helium running low is such a big issue, and why it is important to make wise use of the helium supplies in the world right now.
Finding New Sources of Helium
One of the biggest difficulties facing us today when it comes to helium running low is finding it and harvesting it. “By far the majority of the helium produced today is a product of the natural gas industry in areas with high levels of uranium and other radioactive ores, underground natural gas deposits can contain up to 7% helium by volume.
This is because uranium and other similar elements give off so-called alpha particles as a major source of their radioactivity, little two-proton-two-neutron units that are identical to helium nuclei…Cryogenic purification (separation by freezing point) allows the helium to be coaxed out of the underground mixtures of natural gasses” (Geek.com).
There are other places to find helium but, as of today, this is proven to be the most abundant and reliable method for extracting helium gas from under the earth’s crust. A good portion of the helium used today comes from this method of extraction, but it simply cannot keep up with demand. That’s why experts are exploring ways to prevent helium running low, both in the U.S. and around the world.
The U.S. National Helium Reserve is believed to have less than a billion cubic meters of helium. When you consider that consumption is estimated at just fewer than 200 million cubic meters per year, it is easy to see how soon this reserve will be depleted. An outdated policy almost led to helium running low here prematurely, in which that helium reserve was in jeopardy of being closed and the helium inside being sold off at a fraction of market value.
But Congress, united in a rare bipartisan cooperation move, unanimously voted to keep the Reserve up and running. While we know helium is running low, we do not yet have a more viable and reliable way to boost helium supplies in the world. That is the primary focus at this point, so we can avoid a true shortage crisis.
The Future of the Helium Industry
The best way to prevent the risk of helium running low is to make more helium. This may sound overly simplistic, but it is possible and is the way to settle the shortage. A helium production facility located in Qatar treats natural gas and extracts around 60 million cubic meters of helium each year. After the United States, Qatar is the second largest producer of helium in the world. The U.S. is continuing to produce and harvest more helium each year, but we are also using helium.
If we get to the point where demand exceeds production, then helium running low will become a serious issue, and certain industries are going to find it harder to get helium. Prices will go up, and some industries like the party market will find themselves priced out of helium. What gas is available will be used for medical applications and other tech and industry uses.
We could be a few years away from a time where helium running low will force the gas to become far more expensive. But we may also be able to develop even more improved methods for helium production to avoid any major crisis of shortage.
Helium has proven to be both fun and useful, however it is not in endless supply. Like many other natural resources, supplies are running low and cannot meet current levels of demand. Though it ranks as the second most abundant element in the universe, there is not an endlessly regenerating supply.
The time may be fast approaching where certain uses and industries will have to cut back on or give up their use of helium. As the trend continues and reserves of helium running low becomes a bigger and bigger problem, drastic steps may have to be taken to ensure we are not going to run out of helium, and to protect current helium supplies in the world.
About U.S. Gas
U.S. Gas serves the hard working industries of Chicagoland, and we’ve been doing it since 1993. Our complete line of cylinder gases are ready for whatever your business needs call for: whether standard atmospherics or very specialized gases like NF, USP or UHP and more. Helium running low? Not a problem at our facilities!
Known for our outstanding service for a full range of area industries like food, healthcare, environmental, medical, petrochemical, industrial hygiene and many more, our compressed-gas fill plant boosts our supply and delivery to a superior level of service. Our aim is to be the Number One Company you think of when you think of industrial gas suppliers.
Contact U.S. Gas at (708) 389-1402 to learn what we can do for you!