Saturday, March 24, 2012


We seem to be running out of helium.
I was at the dollar store the other day. It's actual name is still The 99 Cent Store, but they don't sell anything for 99 cents there anymore. Food items there now all cost a dollar, other items a little bit more. I was there to buy some cheese, jalapeno cheese slices to be exact. while I was waiting in line to pay for my jalapeno cheese slices I noticed a security guard standing near the stores entrance holding a balloon filled with helium, which made the balloon float in the air. If he had let go of that balloon it would have happily floated up to the ceiling, trying to find its way up into the sky, up into the atmosphere.
That's because pure helium is lighter than normal air, which consists mostly of nitrogen and oxygen. As the picture above indicates, helium is an element that consists of just two neutrons, two protons, and two electrons. Nitrogen, on the other hand consists of seven protons, neutrons, and electrons, and oxygen is even heavier with eight.
Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, second only to hydrogen, which consists of just one proton, neutron, and electron. About 20% of the observable universe consists of helium. Most of the helium in our solar system resides inside the Sun, as hydrogen is squeezed and heated until it's one proton, neutron, and electron atoms are fused into two, making it helium. The process is not exactly as simple as that, but that's basically what happens, and it happens a lot. Every second 600 million tons of hydrogen atoms are converted into helium atoms.
Appropriately helium was named after Helios, the Greek God of the Sun. It was first observed as an unknown yellow spectral line in sunlight during a solar eclipse in 1868 by a French and an English astronomer. The formal discovery of the element was made in 1895 by two Swedish chemists, who found helium emanating from the uranium ore cleveite.
The United States is by far the largest supplier of helium, which was found in large amounts in natural gas fields in 1903. The single largest concentration of the gas exists in an underground rock formations near Amarillo, Texas... The Federal Helium Reserve. However the government is selling it all off, as it thinks the private sector should take over, and the reserve should be completely depleted by the end of 2014. I don't know why the government believes this, but they do.
A lot of people think prisons are better being run by the private sector, but they are wrong.
A lot of people would like to privatize social security, but they are wrong.
Anyway, helium has uses other than filling up balloons.
You can breath in the helium in those balloons and your voice will sound like Micky Mouse. That's one use, great at parties.
You can also cool it down until it's way, way cold, and use it to maintain the superconductive magnets of a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine, which is very important if you need this kind of medical imaging. MRI machines account for more than a quarter of the helium used in the United States.
Helium has been used in experiments to study turbulence to help understand Chaos Theory. But only little amounts are needed for that. It is however widely used in welding, in the manufacturing of optical fibers and liquid optical displays (LCD) screens, and in processes such as growing crystals to make silicon wafers.
NASA used helium to pressurize the gas tanks in rockets when we used to have a space program. And it keeps the particle accelerators at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois and the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN from overheating.
“Helium is central to half of my ongoing research and the dissertation work of several students,’’ said Daniel Lathrop, a University of Maryland physics professor.
Helium may be the second most abundant element in the universe, but on Earth it is relatively rare—0.00052% by volume in the atmosphere.
But now some scientists are worried that we may completely run out of helium within the next three decades. At the current rate of usage, “the world would run out in 25 years, plus or minus five years,’’ Robert Richardson, a Cornell University physicist who won a Nobel Prize in 1996 for his work with superfluid helium, told a gathering of Nobel laureates in August.
They are already running into shortages, and what helium is available to scientists is becoming more expensive. According to a some interviewed in The Guardian, if helium were being fairly priced, that balloon the Dollar Store security guard was holding would be worth about $120. Helium is that valuable to medicine and science.
Oleg Kirichek tells the Guardian about a project at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory that was canceled 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 agreed:
“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.”
This is a real problem. Should helium balloons be banned? Should non-industrial and scientific use of helium be curtailed? I think this is a serious question that deserves careful consideration. I think we may need to look into other ways of obtaining helium, such as harvesting the solar wind and mining the element on the Moon.
So we have a finite supply of an essential substance that will inevitably become increasingly more expensive to obtain. There's another substance that will suffer the same fate.
Oil is made from the decomposed remains of organic matter, and like helium there is a finite amount of it on this planet, which means it will be increasingly be more expensive to obtain and at some point in the future we are going to run out. It's inevitable. It will happen. It is totally irresponsible to think otherwise.
Helium is an element and cannot be replaced with any other substance for scientific and industrial use. We're screwed with helium.
But not so with oil. It can be replaced with other fossil fuels like coal and natural gas... for a while, as they are finite materials as well, and will eventually run out (and this does not even take into account the real affects of global warming). However there are other energy sources that are not finite, such as wind and solar power, that should be well worth pursuing now, not when the Earth has initiated a runaway greenhouse affect due to fossil fuel consumption, or when we run out of these substances, or they become so expensive they become economically inviable to continue to use.
In this country the Republican Party has tended to resist investure into green technology, as a matter of fact they demonize the Democrats who are more willing to do so. For our nation to remain a leader in this world we have to get past these political games and look and act toward these pressing problems in a realistic, fact based manner. For oil and helium depletion, and any other problems we will or currently face, such as global warming, over fishing our oceans, deforestation, etc, etc, etc.
The Republicans need to grow up. The rest of us need to show them the way.

How helium may have cooled the universe.

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