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Probing Question: Are we running out of helium?

Posted April 29, 2013

Party planners, take note: the atmosphere may become a little deflated at gala events in the future. Some scientists are sounding the alarm about the wastefulness of using helium—a rare, non-renewable gas—to fill party balloons. Why? As an essential resource in technologies such as medical imaging, rocket engines, and surveillance devices, it turns out that helium does a lot more than give our balloons a lift. And despite being the second most abundant element in the universe, most of our supply in the Earth’s atmosphere simply floats off into space and is lost.

Are we running out of helium on Earth?

Moses Chan, Evan Pugh Professor of Physics at Penn State, explains that the world’s supply of helium is a byproduct of natural gas production, with the Texas Panhandle arguably being the helium capital of the world. However, says Chan, “Very few natural gas wells in the world have enough helium in the well to make it economical to separate helium from natural gas. The gas wells with the most helium have only about 0.3 percent, so it is in short supply.”

In response to the element’s scarcity, the United States has been stockpiling helium since the 1960s in a National Helium Reserve called the Bush Dome, a deep underground reservoir outside of Amarillo, Texas. By the mid 1970s 1.2 billion cubic meters of the gas was stored there. The current reserve is approximately 0.6 billion cubic meters, or roughly 4 times the current world market.

But, Chan notes, in 1996 the Helium Privatization Act mandated that the Department of the Interior sell off all the stockpiled helium by 2015. “As a consequence,” he says, “the United States government is selling the equivalent of 40 percent of the world market of helium at a below-market price.”

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