Helium is pretty awesome. It can be chilled to fantastically cold levels as its melting and boiling points are lower than all other elements, just fractions of degrees above absolute zero, at 0.95 K and 4.22 K respectively. It is odourless, tasteless, colourless, non-toxic and completely inert.
These properties make it extremely useful. In the 60s it was the coolant used to keep the liquid oxygen and hydrogen cold in the Apollo program; today it is used to cool the superconducting magnets in magnetic resonance imaging scanners and particle colliders like the Large Hadron Collider. It can be mixed into the air tanks of deep sea divers to help them avoid the bends and helium dating can be used to age rocks. It can also be used to make balloons go up instead of down and turn your voice funny.
Helium was the first element to be discovered somewhere other than here on earth. Its first observation was in the spectra of the sun, hence its name: helium, from helios. It’s the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen but on earth it is very rare, so rare, in fact, that for some time now we have been running rather low on it.
You see, only a very small amount of helium is created here on earth. Thirty years from now when we finally have a few fusion reactors online we’ll create some there, but not much. Currently, all the helium we have is gathered as a side product from when we drill for natural gas. Not every gas field has helium in it, but some of them have 1-2% helium mixed in.
For the last century the US has been the world’s largest producer and storer of helium, ever since large deposits were discovered under much of the Great Plains and in Kansas in particular. The US subsequently built the largest helium storage unit in the world in New Mexico and put it under the management of the US Department of the Interior: Bureau of Land Management. The reserve provides about a third of the world’s helium and nearly half of domestic use.
By the mid 1990s, however, the reserve was $1.4 billion dollars in debt and Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act to enforce a sell off of the reserve. Although it remained government property it is expected to be entirely depleted in just two years time. The Qataris have built a new, very large reserve and are expected to become the major player in the field once the US winds down its operations.
An additional problem is that helium is so small and so light, and therefore moves so quickly, that any that is released into the atmosphere is capable of breaking entirely free of earth’s gravitational pull and escaping out into the wider solar system. We have the dual problem, then, of short and non-renewable supply, combined with the fact that we literally can’t hold onto it if we ever let it go.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to have to go to a hospital that doesn’t have MRI scanners. I’d also quite like our exploration of the vast expanses of space and the tiny world of particle physics to carry on. We know there are decent sized reserves on the moon but, realistically, we’re a long way from mining the moon.
It is exciting, then, to read reports of a very large deposit of helium having been found in Tanzania. Geochemists from the University of Durham thought of a way to actively search for it instead of just extracting whatever we happen to stumble across. Helium is created when uranium and other radioactive elements decay in certain kinds of rocks. Pockets can build up underground that can be amalgamated when rocks turn to liquid during volcanic events. The helium hunting researchers scanned the globe for just the right sort of geological parameters and struck, erm, helium near Lake Eyasi. There are natural springs in the area where helium literally bubbles up out of the ground.
The newly discovered reservoir is thought to be several years supply and it is expected that the same technique can be applied to other areas around the globe. Whilst this seems like it will by us some time and perhaps lower the price, which has more than tripled in recent years, it is not a panacea. We will run out of helium one day, and that day may not be too far away. That’s a sobering thought. Bear it in mind the next time you fancy doing a squeaky voiced party trick.