Helium is the second most abundant element in the known universe, after hydrogen. Strangely, however, a shortage of helium will be faced in the near future (Scholes, 2011).
Why does the availability of helium matter?
It matters because it symbolises the dependency of modern society and future technology on fragile finite resources. And it matters in a practical sense because helium is used for many things, thus:
- Production facilities for electronics, microchips, LCDs and fibre optics
- Arc welding
- Food packaging
- Pressurising and purging vessels e.g. in rockets
- Scuba equipment
- Cryogenics: at -269 C liquid helium is the coldest medium possible
- Supercooled magnets such as in MRI scanners
- Science e.g. NMR spectrometers and gas chromatography
- Infrared scanners
- Weather balloons, airships and party balloons
- Growing silicon and germanium crystals
- Production of titanium and zirconium
- Some gas-cooled nuclear reactors
- The Large Hadron Collider at CERN
The main consumers of helium are:
- MRI scanners, 28%
- Space and Military Rockets, 27%
- Welding, 20%
Once helium is released into the atmosphere, it floats off into space, lost forever. As the cost of helium rises, so will the cost of all the above products and services, and in turn, the products and services which depend upon them. The cost of helium has been kept artificially low because the US government has been selling off large reserves that it accumulated during the cold war. The sell off will be complete in 2015, then demand must be met by current production facilities, which do not yet have the capacity to meet current demand. One analyst suggests that helium prices should be increased 20-fold to preserve supplies.
Helium occurs in natural gas reserves, from which it is isolated and purified. Major reserves and production facilities exist in the USA, Algeria and Russia, and smaller ones are in Poland, Qatar, Australia, China, India and Indonesia. Helium production is linked to natural gas (methane) production, since the same rock formations trap these and other gases. The amount of helium in such natural gases ranges from 0.001 % up to 7% (in one rare case) and it is separated from other gases by fractional liquefaction at progressively decreasing temperatures and increasing pressures. Presumably the methane isolated provides the energy for helium production.
Although helium is created continuously by nuclear reactions occurring in the Earth, most of this is very diffuse and will escape the atmosphere. There is a rare isotope of helium, He-3, produced as a by-product of the nuclear weapons industry, and used in nuclear energy research. Ironically, the decrease in nuclear weapons production is threatening supply of He-3 for peaceful means. Some people suggest (tongue-in-cheek, presumably) that we will have to collect He-3 from the Moon if we are to have nuclear fusion energy on Earth.
Helium is of course just one among many examples of limited resources upon which modern society has been built, and which once released into the environment cannot be recovered. Another example is phosphate fertiliser, essential for food production.
My message, as always, is that current ‘rich-country’ lifestyles are ultimately unsustainable, so the only possible outcome is de-growth (whether by choice or not). The concept of sustainable growth and development is a myth propagated by those who would benefit from it.
There is irony in the fact that helium is named after the Sun (Helios), the symbol of sustainability.
Scholes C.A., Helium: Is the party over? Chemistry in Australia, October 2011, pp 20-22. Royal Australian Chemistry Institute.