Scarcity Of Helium Is Nothing To Take Lightly
Nobel 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.
What 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
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