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?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.