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Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.

Will We Run Out of Helium?

By December 2, 2013

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Helium-Filled Balloons (Pioneer Balloon Company)Helium is the second-lightest element. Although it is rare on Earth, you likely have encountered it in helium-filled balloons. It's the most widely-used of the inert gases, used in arc welding, diving, growing silicon crystals, and as a coolant in MRI scanners.

In addition to being rare, helium is a non-renewable resource. The helium that we have was produced by the radioactive decay of rock, long ago. Once the gases is leaked into the atmosphere, it's light enough to escape the Earth's gravitational field so it bleeds off into space, never to return. We may run out of helium within 25-30 years because it's being consumed so freely.

Why would such a valuable resource be squandered? Basically it's because the price of helium does not reflect its value. Most of the world's supply of helium is held by the US National Helium Reserve, which was mandated to sell off all of its stockpile by 2015, regardless of price. This is based on a 1966 law, the Helium Privatisation Act, which was intended to help the government recoup the cost of building up the reserve. Though the uses of helium have multiplied, the law has not been revisited, so by 2015 much of the planet's stockpile of helium will have been sold at an extremely low price. Unless the price of the helium increases, there will be no perceived reason to conserve or recycle the gas so it will be used and lost. Will we run out? What do you think?

Comments

September 6, 2010 at 9:50 pm
(1) George says:

Kinda funny thinking about helium just disappearing..:(

September 7, 2010 at 7:57 am
(2) Potter Beth says:

Wow, I never realized it would escape the Earth’s gravitational field! What ramifications would this have? (Besides the obvious “we’ll lose something rare and non-renewable” issue.)

September 13, 2010 at 6:16 am
(3) Michael Sidorowicz says:

What will happen to the Hadron Collider and all the other particle accelerators that use liquid helium to create super magnets??

September 13, 2010 at 8:55 pm
(4) Jeff says:

Where did we get this Helium? If it just floats on off, never to return, why didn’t it? Something about this doesn’t sound right. If this is true, we need to make noise, because it is ridiculous.

September 15, 2010 at 3:13 am
(5) Nicolas says:

Most of helium is encapsuled in petroleum, when there is a well drill, bubbles are released, trapped and stored.

one of the worst consequence will be for fine chemicals. No more helium means no more helium liquid (-269C) that is used to cold the NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance apparels)

= the best analysis method would end up maybe.

= it will be hard and harder to analyze products that chemist made.

December 15, 2011 at 1:31 pm
(6) Gopinath T. says:

Unbelievable fact / TRUTH… THNKS FOR THE KIND INFO..

April 25, 2012 at 5:20 am
(7) Carl says:

Michael, I imagine the LHC with have to use high temperature superconductors cooled by liquid nitrogen in their magnets, same with MRI machines. They tend to be trickier to work with that conventional superconductors though.

August 20, 2012 at 12:41 pm
(8) Kristina says:

Liquid nitrogen cannot be used as a stand alone coolant in MRI scans or NMR analysis. Liquid helium is used because it is capable of staying liquid at the extreme cool temperatures required (liquid nitrogen is at -195oC and liquid helium is -269oC) to run the tests. Liquid nitrogen can only be used in the outer parts of the machines to help keep helium cool and from evaporating away. And even in this case, every week or multiple times a week depending on the size and usage of the machines, both of these coolants need to be refilled to keep the machine operating. Very literally, once helium is gone from Earth there will be nothing available (as of now) to complete these scans and analysis that are vital to health and wellness and research and development of so many things.

October 1, 2012 at 6:34 pm
(9) chem says:

If this helium is disappearing, they should really just limit the amount of balloons we buy, or try to think of a way to produce more helium. I can’t imagine this world without balloons.

October 1, 2012 at 9:21 pm
(10) Jay says:

I can’t imagine a world with no helium…

October 12, 2012 at 2:18 pm
(11) Rachael says:

I read another article saying the shortage is from congress mismanagement & random production shortages. It also said there is a 300 year supply and saying we are running out is untrue. This is something there should be facts on not opinions!

November 18, 2012 at 9:09 pm
(12) Chloe says:

It makes me sad that my kids might not get birthday balloons.

November 28, 2012 at 12:31 pm
(13) jess says:

this is not true. helium is produced from raduoactive decay and still will be. we are using it faster than it is being renewed but it is a renewable resource. helium balloons are also not pure helium… our kids will onow what it is and it will still be used in the future

December 12, 2012 at 9:46 am
(14) Anonymous says:

We have a 500 MHz Bruker NMR in my lab. I have to fill the liquid nitrogen about 2X a week ideally but we can get away with once a week or once every other week sometimes. The tradeoff is that the less often you fill the nitrogen which is cheap, the more often you fill the Helium which is expensive. The liquid helium with nitrogen on a 2X weekly schedule lasts about 5 or 6 weeks before it gets low. There’s also giant air conditioners in the room blowing on the liquid nitrogen tank and the NMR dewar to help slow the evaporation of nitrogen and helium.

January 6, 2013 at 8:39 am
(15) Gyges says:

Chloe, who gives a flying s*** about having balloons when this is an actual problem? Goddamn, some people.

January 15, 2013 at 10:43 pm
(16) Anonymous says:

What if scientist are using it for there own experiments for space ships or ufo’s u did say it can easily go thou our gravitational pull just a theory

February 15, 2013 at 1:59 am
(17) brokowski says:

uh, it passes through our gravity because of how light it is, not magic

unless you can make yourself light as helium you’re not going to escape the atmosphere with it

February 17, 2013 at 9:45 pm
(18) cylinderguy says:

i work for a company that makes cylinders that have trademark name ballon time,,if we run out of helium its going to cost alot of jobs possibly for alot of friends that have family to support.im sure we are not the only ones that relie on this resource but its kinda scary.

March 9, 2013 at 1:27 pm
(19) MarchWaden says:

Heliumis created by hydrogen fusion. This is how all the helium in the universe was made. Once we have nuclear fusion going on, which we will any time now and certainly by 300 years or whenever helium will actualy run out, if it ever does, we can use all that helium for balloons, telescopes, MRIs, partical-colliders-that-are-going-to-make-a-black-hole-that-will-suck-up-the-whole-entire-world, and whatever else (I dunno, I bet I could come up with some ways to use it to troll my friends). So, I say we don’t make any stupid @$$ regulations, or fail agencies to eat up tax-payer and balloon-buyer dollars, amd just waste all the helium we want. Also to those people who say that we’ll fuse the created helium too, not only is my point untouched (whatever we do with that helium we still had it at some point, and didn’t have to fuse it), we won’t be able to fuse helium any time soon (not until a long time after hydrogen fusion becomes commonplace), as the required temperature is too great to reach by hydrogen fusion, and is only reached in old stars by gravitational pressure.

April 11, 2013 at 9:31 pm
(20) Bobby says:

Does anyone actually REALLY know what will happen when the Earth runs out of helium? Not being a butthole, but does anyone actually know or everyone is just guessing? Please post on Wikipedia, we are interested :)

May 19, 2013 at 7:33 am
(21) Really says:

Some of these comments are dumb. People worried about balloons and balloon company jobs. Helium has the lowest boiling point of any other substance, which makes it is the ultimate coolant of the human race. It is used in MRI, superconducters, rockets, diving, nuclear reactors. Without it, the human race loses a vast swathe of it’s technological capability, our survival prospects on this hostile little planet drops.

May 28, 2013 at 8:30 am
(22) Dominique says:

I do not believe there is not a way to synthetise helium. Scientists nowadays are able to work with chemicals with a lifetime counted in ms or less so I doubt that no one will work with this one. Especially if a special money prize is put out for it :)

August 10, 2013 at 1:58 am
(23) anon says:

The moon Nazis already have all the Helium 3

September 14, 2013 at 10:19 pm
(24) Sean says:

To #22 Dominique….you can’t synthesize helium chemically. Its an ELEMENT (single atom), not a COMPOUND (two or more atoms, or a molecule).

The only way is by involving high-energy particle physics. Making 1 cubic foot of helium would cost tens of millions of dollars.

September 17, 2013 at 12:45 am
(25) Really? says:

Guys, what do you think the sun makes? It makes helium. That’s how it works. We know how to make helium. Ever wonder how a hydrogen bomb works?

The only problem with man-made helium is that the price would indeed represent it’s rarity. The only uses it would be feasible for are necessary purposes like medical equipment and the like.

September 30, 2013 at 1:09 pm
(26) Shannon says:

I think it’s scary we are running out! It’s weird to think that our grandchildren would of never seen a balloon before!

October 2, 2013 at 10:19 pm
(27) Liz says:

I could careless about a ballon! For 1 I work in healthcare and we need MRI machines! 2nd I had a family member on a ventilator for 7 days and Dr’s didn’t think they would make it. Anyway they used helium as part of the treatment. So needless to say DON’T waste it in stupid stuff!

October 3, 2013 at 10:54 am
(28) Quinn says:

I think the helium companies should raise the price of helium so only people who desperately need it are willing to buy it. Another idea is to stop selling so much helium to people and only have a limited amount you can sell per month.

October 18, 2013 at 6:56 am
(29) Peres says:

I is indeed an interesting try aming at justifying the high price of Helium and the underlaying anger against the intervention of the U.S. government on the “natural flow” of the markets. It’s like making the world pay astronomic prices for vaccines for a disiease that
never reached the much publicized climax..With higher or lower concentrations, every time you extract natural gas, you extract helium. So, the usual suspects ( big petrol companies ), does that ring a bell? And another question yet: if such was to be the outcome ( depletion of He reserves) would the government let go the (thus) strategic reserves?

October 18, 2013 at 2:10 pm
(30) Just Me says:

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

October 23, 2013 at 7:19 pm
(31) K.C. says:

Chloe: Your kids/grandkids will absolutely have balloons. They will just lie on the ground.

December 9, 2013 at 11:37 am
(32) david dunn says:

Helium , like all natural resources are being squandered by man at an alarming rate.

We should tax all natural resources dependant on their danger to to the environment and ecosystems, and as helium destroys the ozone layer it does have a bad effect on the planet’s climate. It should be taxed highly , partly due to its danger, but also to its scarcity and for its potential use in future technologies that we know nothing about at present.

January 21, 2014 at 1:15 am
(33) condensed matter physist says:

These debates are always really entertaining. To tell it straight, yes there is a very VERY small amount of helium on this earth and yes the escape velocity of helium atom is faster enough to escape our atmosphere and exit into space.

This isn’t new, Helium is extracted from resources so it will always deplete until be create it via fusion of hydrogen etc etc

What is interesting is how little understanding people have for the uses, storage and RECYCLING yes that’s right recycling of helium.

In our labs we work on photo-luminescence of materials and use superconducting quantum interference devices which require liquid helium cooling (condensed helium gas just like water vapor gas becomes water) to cool the magnets we use so they become superconducting. NOT to cool the machines because they are hot. Hell when we do that we use liquid nitrogen (a litre of that is the same price as a litre of coca cola which you buy at the supermarket because it is “renewable” since there’s a massive percentage of nitrogen gas in earths atmosphere etc etc)

we work with 40L duwers which are hideously expensive to buy (tens of thousands of dollars) but once you do, you just recycle the liquid from the devices. You can recycle easily 80 to 70% of the helium to be used all over again. Easy. the 20 to 30% will be lost during the transport process as no insulation is perfect or be “bolied” off whatever we put in contact with it which was much much warmer for a very short amount of time an return to gas phase.

the purpose of using helium as a coolant is to reduce atomic vibration noise in photo-luminescence because it is near absolute zero or to cool a magnetic material to its superconducting temperature (MRI etc etc) so that there is almost no resistance in the material and current can flow with almost no losses, creating the magnetic field you need for imaging.

January 21, 2014 at 1:18 am
(34) condensed matter physist says:

the purpose of using helium as a coolant is to reduce atomic vibration noise in photo-luminescence because it is near absolute zero or to cool a magnetic material to its superconducting temperature (MRI etc etc) so that there is almost no resistance in the material and current can flow with almost no losses, creating the magnetic field you need for imaging.

Its being used for scenarios where it is un-replaceable by another coolant, it isn’t being used for just “keeping stuff cold”. it is expensive to cool down a room temperature MRI machine to get it to be superconducting but it doesn’t require much helium to maintain its insanely cold temperature so a running MRI machine with/potentially without a recycling system isn’t a big deal at all. Using this material for science isn’t an issue – finding room temperature/high temperature superconductors which don’t need to be cooled is and I can tell you there is A LOT of working being put into this.

Imagine MRI machines which don’t need liquid helium, that’s a better solution that “OMG I wont have a balloon – lets just get rid of balloons and save the earth”

I agree that the balloon issue is pollution/killing wildlife but by recycling liquid helium we can easily convert a small amount of liquid helium to a massive amount of helium gas.

Honestly I don’t worry about this and its a crucial component for what I do for a living. Taxes don’t solve problems, people solve problems. This one is being given a hell of a lot of time and effort by the people who use the vast majority of it.

January 21, 2014 at 1:21 am
(35) condensed matter physist says:

These debates are always really entertaining. To tell it straight, yes there is a very VERY small amount of helium on this earth and yes the escape velocity of helium atom is faster enough to escape our atmosphere and exit into space.

This isn’t new, Helium is extracted from resources so it will always deplete until be create it via fusion of hydrogen etc etc

What is interesting is how little understanding people have for the uses, storage and RECYCLING yes that’s right recycling of helium.

In our labs we work on photo-luminescence of materials and use superconducting quantum interference devices which require liquid helium cooling (condensed helium gas just like water vapor gas becomes water) to cool the magnets we use so they become superconducting. NOT to cool the machines because they are hot. Hell when we do that we use liquid nitrogen (a litre of that is the same price as a litre of coca cola which you buy at the supermarket because it is “renewable” since there’s a massive percentage of nitrogen gas in earths atmosphere etc etc)

January 21, 2014 at 1:22 am
(36) interested says:

interesting article

March 4, 2014 at 4:10 pm
(37) Orion says:

Well if Helium ever runs out we can just fill up our birthday balloons with hydrogen but the moment the cake comes into the room the house will probably explode in a massive fireball.

March 4, 2014 at 4:15 pm
(38) orion says:

We can always fill up our balloons with Hydrogen XD.

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