The Need for Helium

August 3, 2016
Michael Linde La Canada High School 12th Grade

Michael Linde
La Canada High School 12th Grade

We’ ve all seen balloons, at celebrations or special events. And most of you know that what grants them their seemingly weightless properties is that they are filled with helium – helium, an element so small, that the dif- ference in density between the helium inside the balloon and the normal atmospheric gas outside the balloon – composed mostly of oxygen and nitrogen, much heavier elements – forces the balloon upwards. However, what many don’ t know is that although helium is one of the most abundant elements in the universe, accounting for about 75% of its normal matter, there is actually quite a limit- ed supply on Earth, because most of it bleeds off into space. And we are running out quite quickly.

Not being able to blow up balloons is a minor loss, so at first a shortage of helium doesn’ t seem like a cause for worry. Okay, maybe we might also miss Goodyear blimps. Not a big deal, right?

In fact, helium is irreplaceable. For ex- ample, because helium diffuses so quickly due to its small size, it is used to inflate car airbags in time to save lives. Helium is also used as a cooling agent for crucial scientific equipment, such as the Large Hadron Collid- er or nuclear reactors, and more importantly, lifesaving medical equipment such as MRI scanners. It also is used as a shield during arc welding; as an inert gas, it prevents more reactive substances present in the air, such as oxygen or water vapor, from corroding or otherwise reduce the quality of the weld.

There are alternatives, but helium is the only gas cost effective enough to be used for this purpose other than argon. We obtain helium like other natural gases – by drilling into the ground and tapping into vast reservoirs. It is a byproduct of nor- mal natural gas production, so there is no extra effort involved in getting it. The gas fields between Amarillo and Huguton in Kansas, for example, have a helium concen- tration of 1.9% – which is actually considered quite high, so America has been producing almost 75% of the world’ s helium.

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The problem is the fact that this supply is limited like any other natural resource, and the res- ervoir in question is expected to“ dry up” by 2020. However, that will not be the end of the world, as a gigantic reservoir of helium – 54 cubic billion feet – was discovered in Tanzania just recently, located not by luck, but by advanced geochemistry and seismic imaging. This means that not only will the Tanzania reservoir keep us going for a long time, fu- ture discoveries will follow soon, prolonging the time we can use helium by a lot.

But this does not solve the main problem, which is that helium on the Earth is limited. While finding new pockets of helium in the Earth’ s crust may buy us time for now, we must use that time in order to research ways to recover helium from outside the Earth. Just like efforts for renewable energy, such as so- lar or wind, we need to find ways to circum- vent the limited amount of helium on planet Earth.



  1. Barnaby Egerton-Warburton

    August 3, 2016 at 6:35 PM

    great note mate.

  2. Jen

    August 15, 2016 at 4:37 PM

    Very well written note.

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