Imagine a rare and scarce natural resource, existing only in limited quantities here on Earth. Found primarily as a byproduct of petroleum production, this substance is essential for many medical tests (for example, MRIs) and for important, and expensive, scientific research. It was deemed so valuable for much of the last century that it was strategically stockpiled by the US government from 1920 to 1990.
And now, scientists and doctors are starting to run into shortages. They’re cancelling and delaying research projects – some are even talking about the future need to capture more of this element from solar winds above the atmosphere, or even start mining for it on the surface of the moon.
What is this precious, nonrenewable resource, and why are we running out of it?
It’s helium. And, according to a number of scientists interviewed in The Guardian, if helium were being priced fairly, those colorful balloons at your 10-year-old’s birthday party should be going for about $120 each. The stuff is that valuable to medicine and science.
While there is still helium in the world, the US government stockpile of the gas has dried up. Prices are starting to rise as the gas becomes harder to obtain. And what will happen when all the natural sources have been exhausted?
Oleg Kirichek tells the Guardian about a project at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory that was cancelled when the facility ran out of helium:
“It costs £30,000 a day to operate our neutron beams, but for three days we had no helium to run our experiments on those beams,” said Kirichek. “In other words we wasted £90,000 because we couldn’t get any helium. Yet we put the stuff into party balloons and let them float off into the upper atmosphere, or we use it to make our voices go squeaky for a laugh. It is very, very stupid. It makes me really angry.”
Professor Jim Wild agrees:
“Helium is particularly important for running super-conducting magnets. These have to be cooled to -270C to operate, and liquid helium does that perfectly. These magnets are now widespread and found in machines that range from the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva to MRI scanners in hospitals,” said Professor Jim Wild, of Sheffield University. “Without helium, none of these machines would work. Unfortunately that threatens to be a real prospect in the near future.”
I don’t know about everyone else, but when presented with the choice of being able to easily and affordably obtain a needed medical scan in a few decades, or having colorful balloons at my next party, I think I can do without the balloons. But obviously, there’s no simple solution – how many consumers are aware of the fact that this is even a choice they’re making? News coverage of how the shortage is affecting retailers doesn’t even mention the fact that we may run out of helium completely within the next 30 years.
So what’s the answer? Is it, as some suggest, raising prices and effectively ending non-scientific uses of helium? Should helium balloons be banned? What do Care2 readers think?
Photo credit: Tijmen Kielen