This is the third of three posts about helium, and the potential for a world shortage of this unique and wonderful element.
In Part 1, I talked a little bit about why helium is a nonrenewable resource. In Part 2, I tried to achieve a layman’s understanding of the world’s helium markets, and the various reasons why they’ve suddenly become unstable in the past 15 years (after decades of remarkable stability).
This is the last post of the three; it’s more of a list than an essay like the previous posts. Today I’m going to try to outline some of the many wonderful uses that make helium special, and make the case that a total depletion of the Earth’s helium reserves (both helium-4 [4He] and helium-3 [3He] ) would be a tragedy.
We stand to lose much more than party balloons and squeaky voices if we run out of helium.
This is the second of three posts on the topic of helium, and the looming shortage of this unique and wonderful element. (I say looming with regard to the most common isotope of helium-4 (4He). But critical shortages have been hitting supplies of a rare helium isotope, helium-3 (3He), for several years now. More on that below. Also, I’m dispensing with superscripts because I think they look ugly on the blog.)
The previous post, Part 1, tried to give some explanation as to why helium is a nonrenewable resource. The next post, Part 3, will try to make the case that helium is extremely valuable for science and industry. In this post, below the cut, I’ll try to come to a layman’s understanding of the world’s helium markets, and why they’ve become dangerously unstable in the past 15 years or so.
Here’s something that has been on my mind quite a bit lately.
Many people don’t realize that helium is a non-renewable resource. Even fewer people realize there’s a very real possibility that the earth’s helium reserves could be catastrophically diminished within our lifetime. Even if the world’s supply of helium isn’t entirely tapped out, the remaining supplies face the alarming prospect, within the next 15 years, of becoming extraordinarily expensive. Expensive enough to make helium inaccessible for many of the applications considered commonplace today.
I know it sounds a little silly at first blush (big deal, Ian, no more party balloons) but this is a genuinely serious issue. The depletion of the Earth’s helium reserves would be a tragedy for science and industry. The reason for this looming calamity stems from some extremely poor legislative decisions going back well over a decade, but more than that, it stems from the very nature of helium itself.
This subject is a little long for a single post. So, I’m going to break this discussion into three parts: In Part 1, I’ll try to address the issue of why helium is a nonrenewable resource. In Part 2, I’ll say a little bit about the history of the world’s helium reserves, and current threats to the world helium market. In Part 3, I’ll talk about why we need helium for more than just party balloons, why this unique element is an awesome and irreplaceable resource for science and technology, and why its loss would be tragic.