Vial of glowing ultrapure helium: image via Wikipedia.orgNobel Prize-winner, Robert Richardson, physicist at Cornell University
suggests that party balloons should cost $100 each to reflect today's
price of helium. While I doubt that balloon and helium tank dealers will
take Richardson's suggestion to heart, you may have already seen the
price of helium balloons double. And that's nothing compared to the
impact of the helium shortage on its biggest users: scientists,
engineers, and medical device manufacturers.
Helium is used in
imaging systems, computer processors, and magnetic resonance imaging
(MRI) to name a few industries. Where life many be at stake, MRI and
other medical technology are either going to have to find a suitable
replacement, or continue to pay exorbitant prices for this gas. This
year alone, prices have gone up 20 to 30 percent, depending on what the
helium source charges.
In the making of an MRI device helium is
cooled until it turns to liquid, when it acts to prevent the magnets
from over heating. “Liquid helium is this amazing stuff that can be used
at very cold
temperatures,” P. Chris Hammel, an Ohio State University physicist, told
the Columbus Dispatch.
Helium cost Hammel $70,000 this year for
his research on magnetism and electronic spin for use in imaging and
processing technologies. “I could hire two more students if I didn’t
have that bill,” he said. “It’s a
really large amount.”
But the situation is not likely to
improve. Though helium is the second most common element in the
universe, it is very difficult to isolate helium from other elements on
earth. The most common source of helium was natural gas fields, where
small amounts of helium could be isolated. Apparently those fields are
no longer producing much helium and the more recent natural gas finds
are not turning out to be great sources of helium either.
To make matters worse, in 1996 Congress acted to phase out what was the Natural Helium Reserve
in Amarillo, Texas, established in 1925 to guarantee that helium would
be available for necessary uses. To deplete the reserve, large
quantities of helium were sold at cheap prices. A bubble tends to
burst: the new bill calls for the Reserve to be depleted by 2015.
then? Richardson, who was worried about the eventual depletion of
capturable helium on earth since the 1980s, says "This is a fact of life
that we're really trying to deal with."
source: The Columbus Dispatch