Ron Colone: A helium shortage? How can that be? Here’s how

Ron Colone: A helium shortage? How can that be? Here’s how

From the 2019's Best: Collection of the top stories of the year on SYVNews.com series
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They wanted balloons for the celebration, but the guy at the balloon store said they couldn’t get us a helium tank because there’s a shortage of helium.

How could there possibly be a shortage of the second-most abundant element in the universe? But all it took was about two minutes to find out how, for while helium is abundant throughout the the entire universe, there is very little of it on Earth.

Helium is one of only two elements — hydrogen being the other — that was created in and by the Big Bang. All other 118 elements are created inside of stars through the process of nuclear fusion — hydrogen atoms fuse together to form helium; helium fuses to form beryllium, hydrogen and helium fuse to form lithium until every element is created.

But although we’re talking about the stars and the Big Bang, the hydrogen and helium we get on Earth do not come to us from outer space. They’re too light, our gravity can’t hold them.

Another thing to note is that hydrogen is very reactive. It likes to bond with other elements to form chemical compounds, such as methane, which is hydrogen and carbon; ammonia, which is hydrogen and nitrogen; and water, which is hydrogen and oxygen.

Helium, on the other hand, is not reactive. It does not combine with other elements, so we cannot break apart chemical compounds to produce it. The only helium we have on Earth comes from inside the planet, from the decay of radioactive elements. It takes several thousand years for this process to occur, but as these materials deteriorate, they give off alpha particles, which acquire electrons from their surroundings to become helium atoms.

The helium gets trapped in rocks and minerals, except for a small amount that makes its way out to the surface and into the atmosphere, but because it’s so light, it just drifts off into space where it gets blown around on solar winds.

It’s impractical and way too expensive to try and pull helium out of the air, so instead we extract it, along with natural gas, from rock formations.

This goes back to 1903, when an oil drilling operation in Kansas uncorked a gas geyser that wouldn’t burn. This led to the discovery that, despite its overall rarity on Earth, helium was concentrated in large quantities under the American Great Plains.

In 1925, the U.S. government built the world’s largest helium storage facility, known as the National Helium Reserve, near Amarillo, Texas, and for many years, the United States produced 90 percent of the world’s commercial helium. Extraction plants have since been built in Algeria, Qatar, Russia, Australia, Poland, Canada and a few other places, but the majority of the world’s helium still comes from our Great Plains.

At present, there are 35 million cubic meters of helium left in the world. By some estimates, that gives us 20 years, though I’ve also read it could supply us for 117 years. However long it is, when it’s gone it’s gone.

So while we sit there wondering if we’re going to have balloons for the party, our medical labs and research scientists who depend on helium for MRIs and imaging technology are wondering what they are going to do when we run out. There is no alternative or replacement for helium because it has the lowest boiling point of any element.

I’m guessing we’ll come up with something new. We always do. In the meantime, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t conserve where and when we can, maybe even in the use of party balloons. I’m sure if we try, we can come up with fun and creative ways to add color and whimsy to our events.

Ron Colone can be reached at ron.colone@gmail.com

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