Helium shortage could spell disaster
Published Saturday, March 24, 2012 9:14PM EDT
At the rate that our world is burning through helium, we could run out of the gas within 30 years. While that might bring some sad faces to balloon lovers, it could spell disaster for the medical community and other industries.
Indeed, some medical facilities here in Canada are already feeling the pinch of helium shortages.
When most of us think of helium, we think of party balloons. But the gas – particularly in its liquid form – plays an important role in medical imaging, electronics manufacturing, space exploration and nuclear energy. And without it, those industries have few other options.
Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, but there's a finite amount of it here on planet Earth. As Deryck Webb from the University of Alberta notes, it's a non-renewable resource that can't be made artificially.
"As soon as helium is liberated into the air, it's gone. It leaves the Earth's atmosphere and it goes out into space. So there's no way of getting it back. It's a finite resource, just like oil and gas," Webb explained to CTV News Channel on Friday from Edmonton.
All of the planet's helium is found deep underground, where it was created over millions of years through the decay of rocks and other materials. It's harvested as a byproduct of natural gas extraction, and its largest reserves are found in the giant oilfields of Texas and the American southwest.
What makes helium unique is that it has very low melting and boiling points. That means that once it's cooled into a liquid form, it remains liquid even at frigid temperatures.
It's thus an excellent material for cooling down giant magnets, like those used in MRI machines, so they can become "superconducters" of electricity and create the strong magnetic fields needed for creating crisp medical images.
Webb is a nuclear magnetic resonance technologist who makes sure that that the NMR spectrometers at the University of Alberta have the helium they need to work. He says the biggest users of helium, by far, are MRI machines and NMR.
Webb says supplies of helium are tight in Canada, with only two main wholesale suppliers, and he's already heard of shortages at medical facilities.
He got a call recently from a health institution in St John's that had an emergency need for helium. The facility was running out of liquid helium to keep its MRI cool and the magnet inside was at risk of "quenching" -- meaning it would warm up out of its superconducting state.
"The emergency was that they could have lost their superconducting coil. It would have quenched and it would have cost tens of thousands of dollars to bring it back up," Webb said.
Luckily, the university was able to help. But he says if the MRI had gone offline, it would have meant the cancellation of dozens of MRI tests and exams, resulting in potentially life-endangering delays.
Though helium was only discovered around the turn of the 20th century, humanity has since found dozens of uses for it, using it up so quickly that it could all be gone by 2050.
After MRI and NMR machines, NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense are the second biggest users of helium, using it to condense hydrogen and oxygen to make rocket fuel and to clean out fuel from rocket engines.
Helium also plays a part in manufacturing electronics, fibre optics and semiconductors. And it plays an important role in cooling the superconducting magnets in CERN's Large Hadron Collider near Geneva.
Though many industries now depend on helium, the world has taken few precautions to conserve or recycle the precious resource.
According to physicist Robert Coleman Richardson, from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, that's because helium is entirely too cheap. And he blames the U.S. Congress for that.
In 1996, Congress decided to sell off the U.S.'s large helium stockpile. It legislated a set price for helium and vowed to sell off all its reserve helium by 2015. That's meant that the price of helium has been kept artificially low even as the demand for the gas has soared in the last two decades.
Richardson recently told The New Scientist that U.S. needs to abandon that legislation and allow the price of helium to rise in efforts are ever going to be made to conserve. He says the price of helium should rise as much as 50-fold, to reflect its true value.
That way, he says, excess wasting of helium would end. And it would ensure that everyone, from medical technologists to balloon-loving children, would have enough of the precious gas for decades to come.