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Helium Shortage Threatens More than Party Balloons
December 20, 2012

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Many holiday parades have been notable for their smaller-than-average number of balloons this year, but that's not the biggest problem: The supply of helium, used to fill all those party balloons, is running out.

Helium can't be created artificially, and it can't be reused. Earth has a finite supply of the stuff, largely because although helium is the second-most abundant element in the Universe, Earth's atmosphere keeps the planet from absorbing helium blown through space by the solar wind. And the helium that is already here on Earth is not all that easy to access.

Companies drilling for oil or gas encounter pockets of helium underground. The helium is then distilled to create the product that is used in a growing number of things and processes.

Helium has several high-profile uses in the medical realm. Hospitals mix it with oxygen to help newborns and extremely sick patients breathe more easily. Medical tests like MRIs depend on helium. The machines that conduct MRI tests need up to 10,000 liters of helium, mainly to keep the machine's vital magnet cool and stable, with a uniform magnetic field. Basically, without helium, MRI machines as they are designed now won't work.

Other modern technologies use significant amounts of helium as well. Computer chips and fiber optic cables are made using helium. The element is also used in running massive and massively cool refrigerators like those found in high tech laboratories like the Large Hadron Collider.

Already, scientists in the U.S., the U.K., and in other countries have canceled experiments because of a shortage of helium.

The U.S. currently supplies nearly three-quarters of the world's helium. The U.S. Government has taken steps to address the growing helium shortage, but a pending privatization of the Federal Helium Reserve and a large amount of debt faced by the Reserve's operator, the Bureau of Land Management, have created a scenario under which, in 2013, the Reserve might stop selling helium altogether. Such a step would have effects far beyond the number of balloons in cities' parades.

 

 

 

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