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"At some point in the next 25-100 years, technologically advanced societies may cease to exist in their present form, due to the exhaustion of world helium supplies".
The supply of helium is becoming increasingly crucial and soon will be diminished. Will this lead technology to grind to a halt when helium reserves run out? The amount of helium required worldwide is on the rise but the supply is ceasing. Helium is a fascinating gas and its demand is on the rise as it has a wide range of essential use in science and medicine. Nevertheless, there is not much happening to preserve helium which is becoming increasingly worrying and replacements are limited. Helium comes from the Greek word "helois" meaning "sun". Its symbol is He, with an atomic number of 2 and a strong electronic configuration of 1s2.
Helium is a noble gas and is in group 7 with an atomic weight of 4.002602(2)g mol-1. Natural helium is a combination of 2 stable isotopes helium 3 and 4. It is the second most lightest and second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen but is still a rare, finite gas. This is because helium does not combine with other atoms unlike hydrogen. Helium is a tightly bound atom due to its closed electronic configuration hence the very high ionization energy as a lot of energy is required to extract an electron from it. Helium is much lighter than air, due to its small gaseous molecular structure. Unlike any other element, helium 4 becomes a liquid below 4.2 Kelvin, just four degrees short of absolute zero.
Helium has a boiling point of -268.93°C that is close to absolute zero and the lowest melting point of -272.2°C, compared to any other element. At room temperature and at atmospheric pressure, helium is a gas that is colourless, odourless, non-toxic and rather tasteless.
Due to being inert to chemical reactions, radiation and being inflammable it provides
usefulness in a wide range of applications. Liquid Helium boils at -233 °C. Such extreme low temperatures prove liquid helium to be an excellent refrigerator for numerous scientific, medical and industrial applications.
Helium has a high rate of permeability and solubility, due to having a very small molecular cross section.
Helium is naturally produced by hydrogen fusion reactions by the sun. Surprisingly, most of the helium on the earth is due to radioactive decay of uranium and thorium. This produces a by product called alpha particles which is just a helium atom (He2+) with no electrons. These electron-less helium atoms then capture an electron to become the gas helium. The process of radioactive decay can span over thousands of years. Helium gas becomes trapped below the ground in underground caverns, where helium gas builds up. This eventually leads to the gas escaping from the earth's surface. On average, a Helium atom remains in the atmosphere for million, after which it is irreversibly lost in space. Nevertheless, helium is still considered to be a non-renewable source.
Helium gas is collected by drilling into the underground caverns as it is escaping but this leads to the loss of helium into the atmosphere.
USA is the largest commercial supplier of helium. It has significant reserves in natural gas fields which run from west Kansas, through to Oklahoma panhandle into north Texas and Wyoming. Other sources within the USA include Colorado and Utah.
The Hugoton-Panhandle giant gas field, which is situated in west Kansas-Texas, is the most significant existing source of helium. 3
Other helium supplying countries are China, Algeria, Russia, and Poland. Helium produced in the US only contains considerable concentrations of helium in natural gas. Consequently, the United States is the world's leading supplier of helium. For example, the Pennsylvania-based Air products distributes a third of the world's helium supply.
Helium was discovered during a period of around 40 years but was not fully understood until much later. The first detection was during the Indian solar eclipse in 1868 where astronomers detected a new line of the spectrum which was in the yellow region and was not seen before. Sir Norman Lockyer determined the yellow line showed to be a sign of an unknown element which he later named helium. This yellow line had not been seen on the earth until 27 years later where it was discovered by William Ramsay. Whilst studying spectra of gases realised upon treating uranium-based mineral the yellow line was seen again. It was Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy who eventually concluded that helium was a product of radioactive decay of Uranium and Thorium.
Nearly all of the helium found in the earth today comes from this radioactive decay of uranium and thorium-rich minerals.
Worldwide there are 16 plants which extract helium from natural gas but not every one of them is running at full capacity. This implies that more helium could be produced if they were to be running at full capacity, providing more helium supply. Nevertheless, it would result in helium supply ceasing as there is a greater global demand for helium than what is actually available or will be available in the long term to meet demands.
Helium being the world's most used inert gas is being used up at a striking rate which is due to a law (Helium Privatization Act) that passed in the US in 1996 which has effectively made helium too cheap to recycle.
According to this law, the biggest store of helium in the world, the US National Helium Reserve in Amarillo, must sell off all Helium by 2015, irrespective of the market price. The law was a result of accumulated government debt created by the Helium Act of 1960 which was $579 million in Fiscal year 2009.
The Helium privatisation act of 1996 ensures that NASA being the highest industrial user of Helium, does not become short of helium supply. The act ensures that users such as the NASA will receive priority in helium supply compared to others in need of helium. Nevertheless, helium will be available for a long time to come to fill our balloons and enlighten our occasions.
The price of crude helium in the US increased from $64.75 per thousand cubic feet to $75.00, an increase of 15.8% in 2010. Due to the Helium Privatisation Act of 1996 the debt was frozen but the US government has to ensure that all reserves are sold by 2015.
Helium has unique properties, such as its low boiling point, low density, low solubility, high thermal conductivity, inertness. These properties give helium its vast range of applications. One of the most identifiable usages of helium is in balloons and airships which is due to helium being lighter than air.
An alternative to Helium is Hydrogen and helium was used to replace hydrogen in airships. Due to the explosive nature of hydrogen, it could only be used in certain cases.
The largest helium usage consumption today is for cryogenic which revolves around the production of very low temperatures, below -150 °C. Helium has appropriate cryogenic properties due to its low boiling point and it can be refrigerated at extremely low temperatures. The application of cryogenics requires liquid, for which Helium proves to be useful.
Another important usage of helium is in magnetic resonance where it aids in performance of high field magnetic. Liquid helium in wires and magnets allows superconductivity to maintain the temperature. As a result, the magnets rotate in the correct direction. Due to low cost liquid helium and stability of the helium market it has contributed to the rapid growth of MRI instruments which is on the rise.
The importance of magnetic resonance can be seen in the health care industry and currently it seems like there is no appropriate substitution for helium. There are ways of conserving/reducing the amount of helium being used but further research needs to be conducted. The lack of sustainable supply of helium has increased the importance of MRI manufacturers to introduce ways of reducing the amount of liquid helium required in MRI.
Technologies currently in place would improve cryostats with superior thermal efficiency, cryo-coolers that re-condense helium. Improved magnet wiring with junctions would reduce the size and weight of materials that need to be cooled and lowering the small heat load that the magnet itself generates.
As a result, there was a significant reduction of helium usage by ten times. Refilling liquid helium only needs to be done once every few years. The use of permanent magnets in MRI instruments has a great benefit in that it would not require expensive refrigeration due to being good low filed systems.
Future wise, there is research being conducted into systems using lower magnetic field strengths, using permanent magnets or electromagnets and systems that require no cryogens. However, high temperature superconducting wires would not be a feasible alternative to conventional superconductors in MRI machines.
Helium plays an essential role in welding which is again due to its properties of being lighter than air, thermal conductivity and ionization potential. In arc welding, helium acts as a shielding gas preventing atmospheric contamination of the molten metal as well as providing stability for the arc. In gas tungsten arc welding helium shields the red hot tungsten electrode from the surroundings.
In CO2 laser welding, helium protects the weld pool from oxidation, prevents plasma formation and stop the laser optics from damage. Other inert gases such as Argon can be used instead of helium providing the same benefits in welding. Argon can be used in combination with helium which increases the travel speed of the gas and is cheaper.
Another use of helium is in rocketry where it is used as a displacement fuel to pressurize the engines propellant tank, avoiding the tanks from collapsing. The main characteristic of helium that makes it useful in this application is its low boiling point compared to hydrogen. It can purge the propellant system for liquid hydrogen.
Helium is an excellent tracer gas, due to its superior ability to diffuse through solids as it has low viscosity and a large diffusion coefficient. This plays a vital role in leak detection for rocket engines, high pressure containers, manufacture/maintenance of vacuum equipment. Moreover, it is an essential leak detector in mass spectrometers, proving to be the most sensitive method of detecting leaks before reaching critical stages.
A replacement for this application is unlikely due to helium being one of the most inert gases and small size. In this case Argon would not prove to be a substitute due to its presence in the atmosphere.
Helium has low solubility in water which makes it useful for deep-sea divers as a breathing gas which consists of a helium oxygen mixture (80:20). This allows divers to work under high atmospheric pressures for longer periods. Compared to Nitrogen, helium is absorbed and released by human tissue much faster, providing longer dives and preventing nitrogen narcosis. Robot replacements for humans are on the rise but the amount of helium consumed may remain the same. An alternative to helium is hydrogen for deep sea diving.
Overall, the findings conclude that there is an unbalance between helium availability and demand. I agree with the statement at the beginning to some extent. Global demand for helium is climbing and despite the small supply, helium is cheap. A helium balloon costs a few dollars because the US has been selling off helium at bargain prices due to the helium privatization act. According to Prof. Richardson, a helium balloon should cost $100, reflecting the true value of helium.
So far, US government stockpiles have created an illusion of adequate supply of helium which clearly isn't the case now due to world wide increasing demand and short-sighted management.
Helium can be recycled, but with prices so low there is little incentive. It is vital for helium-producing industries to work with helium end users to conserve, recover and recycle the resource. The price of helium needs to rise drastically to make recycling worth while and according to the US, prices will increase by 15% this year.
Many factors will have to be taken into account when deciding on the most cost effective recycling system. Companies manufacturing helium supply systems should be part in the generation of possible solutions.
Considering the fact that it takes billions of years to produce helium, I believe it will be highly unlikely to find a new reserve. Preserving the remaining helium that is left has become vital.
If the situation remains unchanged then technology will certainly slow down and possibly come to a halt in few years to come.