We are running out of helium. That light gas that floats kids balloons and raises the pitch of voices to heights of great hilarity is a limited natural resource on Earth. While it’s difficult to be certain, estimates has the US running out of helium by as soon as 2025 … just thirteen years from now, the worldwide supply a couple decades after that. We need to do something, quickly.
Helium is the second element on the periodic table. It’s the second most common element in the universe (after hydrogen), at about 24% of the total elemental mass. This is great for the universe, but not so much for us, as it tends to escape. Its atmospheric quantity is about 0.000524%. Helium is a by-product of radioactive decay and tends to accumulate in certain underground areas. As this build-up is so slow, helium is essentially a non-renewable resource.
The US has the world’s largest stockpile (about 80%), but for a variety of reasons it has been selling it off at fire-sale prices. The net effect has been helium being bought dirt-cheap and then not used with conservation in mind.
Why is this important? Because helium is used in many areas; for example, in the US:
- About 28% for cryogenic superconducting/magentic uses such as particle accelerators and MRI machines.
- Space and defense systems take up another 26%
- 13% to manufacture fiber optics and semiconductors (i.e. computer chips)
- Airships and balloons take up about 7%.
- The remaining 26% is from other uses such as welding, experiments, cleaning, diving, lasers, etc.
What are we to do? I think task #1 is to stop selling off the helium reserve. Yeah, it costs some to keep it stored, but what’s the alternative? This is one of those cases when you need to have an eye on the long term ramifications.
Restriction of recreational helium use, or at least rationing, might not be a bad idea. While kids balloons aren’t a huge percent of usage, it’s still significant.
Start research into helium creation. This basically means nuclear fusion. We have fusion reactors, they just haven’t been able to sustain break-even to this point. I don’t think that matters. If, with only a modest addition of external energy, we can fuse hydrogen isotopes into helium…and if we can do it in reasonable quantities, then I say it’s an avenue worth pursuing.
In this vein, I’d suggest tapping into the growing expertise of nuclear prodigy, Taylor Wilson. I mean, the kid built a nuclear fusion reactor in his garage, for cryin’ out loud. Surely he can put something together for helium production. It’s at least worthy of a few experiments, no?
After that, we really only have two other options: forget about helium and the things that need it; or head out into space and pick some up there. Sources of helium abound in the solar system. From the solar wind, to the lunar regolith, to the clouds of Jupiter, there is helium a-pleanty. Just not here.
This is becoming a pressing problem. None of the solutions are likely to be achieved in the very short term. It’s going to take years, if not decades, to develop a new, reliable source for helium. We’d best get started.