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Are We Really Running Out Of Helium?

Running out of Helium

Science

Are We Really Running Out Of Helium?

Several media reports have been released which claim that the world is running low on fossil fuels and several rare earth metals. However, for some industries, running out of the noble gas helium could be a bigger problem.

Helium — commonly used in birthday balloons, for superconducting magnets, cryogenics, and to make our voices sound funny — could get a lot more expensive in the near future, according to Robert Richardson, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist.

Where Do We Get Our Helium?

MRI Machine

MRI Machine

Because helium is incredibly light, most of the helium in the air around us rises up into the atmosphere and eventually drifts off into space. This makes it incredibly hard to harvest it from our own air. There just isn’t enough of it and it would be an incredibly complex and expensive process. It’s possible to do, just very, very expensive and difficult. Instead, our helium is dug right out of the ground.

Fortunately, helium is a by-product of radioactive decay. Since radioactive decay has been happening naturally in the earth’s crust for billions of years, helium tends to collect in pockets of natural gas. The richest of such deposits are located in southwestern US gas fields. By liquifying the natural gas and filtering out any impurities, we are able to extract helium relatively easy and cheaply.

Are We Running Out Of Helium?

As with all things we are “running out of”, we’ll never actually totally run out. Supplies will certainly not be as abundant, and as a result, prices will rise, but world supplies will never actually drop to zero.

Helium birthday balloons and using it to alter your voice will no longer be commonplace, as such a balloon may cost upwards of $100. Due to the prohibitive cost, helium usage will be limited to medical, science and industry usage – like chilling the superconducting electromagnets in MRI machines, cooling crucial particle accelerator components, and used for CPU fabrication.

The is the same thing will happen with rare earth metals and oil. We will never actually “run out” of oil, but because of the difficulty in harvesting increases the cost to produce a barrel of oil, the price of gas may rise to $20 per gallon. This is what’s known as “Peak Oil“.

Fun Fact: While you can use helium to make your voice sound higher, you can also use sulfer hexafluoride to make your voice sound really low. See video below to watch Adam from Mythbusters demonstrate this effect.



2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Nora K

    July 3, 2014 at 9:22 pm

    We’re definitely not running out of helium. There are sources everywhere. Those news reports which claim we are running out are just sensationalizing the issue to gain readers. Helium can never run out because it’s a byproduct of Uranium decay. And we’ll have Uranium as long as the earth exists. Not to mention, it’s abundant throughout our solar system. No, scratch that. It’s abundant throughout the entire universe. The only element more abundant is hydrogen.

    • Xavier Walker

      April 6, 2015 at 1:13 pm

      Not to mention that the Moon is very abundant with Helium-3. With some research and chemistry, Helium-3 could be synthesized into what we’re familiar with as Helium or kept the same to prevent leaking into the atmosphere and space. That is, as long as it’s not interfered with by the necessary amount of radiation to break it down, or some other external force.

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