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The importance of conserving helium

Helium is extremely valuable for research and technology because it boils at the low temperature of -269oC, close to the lowest attainable temperature known as absolute zero (-273oC) and thus is used in its liquid form whenever extremely low temperatures are required.

Helium is not a renewable resource. It is found underground and obtained as a byproduct of natural gas extraction and supplies are running low. While most research facilities try to capture and recycle used helium, some loss is inevitable and supplies need to be constantly replenished. This is becoming steadily harder with research machines becoming idle for want of supplies.

The American Physical Society and other scientific organizations warned over a decade ago that a shortage was coming. It did not help when Congress in 1996 passed the Helium Privatization Act that mandated the sale of the federal helium reserve by 2015, which had been under the jurisdiction of the US Bureau of Land Management. This reserve supplies about 40% of domestic and 35% of worldwide requirements and once exhausted can never be replaced.

It is time to ban the use of helium for frivolous purposes, such as party balloons and the like.

Comments

  1. jamessweet says

    Seriously, it’s stuff like this that makes me want to just give up trying to live ethically at all. Everything fun is bad for you or bad for the environment or bad for science. Blah.

  2. jamessweet says

    To be clear, I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m just saying, trying to live ethically sucks. heh…

  3. Randomfactor says

    I heard the federal government, under Obama, is at least trying to buy back and hoard helium-3.

    But yeah, talk about a short-sighted policy…hope we can hold out until we can start manufacturing the stuff.

  4. Doug Little says

    It is time to ban the use of helium for frivolous purposes, such as party balloons and the like.

    Yes, replace the helium with nitrous oxide in party balloons, makes for a better party anyway.

  5. F says

    I always wondered about the frivolous uses of helium. And also about the less frivolous but no-recapture uses.

  6. Donovan says

    How hard is it to recapture helium and why? Is it because it’s inert and doesn’t bind to collection devices? Or is it more about dilutions? Not that I can solve the problem even if you explain it. I’m just annoyingly curious.

  7. Mano Singham says

    People in research labs do try to recapture helium as much as possible but there are inevitable losses due to leakage. Partly it is from transporting it in large high-pressure dewars and transferring it to other dewars. Part of the loss is because it is so inert, it is used as a protective gas in growing pure crystals. It is used widely in cryogenic systems and there is leakage there too. Helium is used also as a leak detector and there is loss there too. A little leak here, a little leak there, pretty soon you’re talking real losses.

    The problem is that helium is just too cheap which is why it is wasted on balloons and the like. This is because of the 1996 act that required the US to get rid of its reserves by 2015. After that prices may rise. Some suggest that the price of helium should be about 20 times its current value to reflect its true value. Maybe after the US reserves are depleted prices will rise but by then we would have simply wasted a lot of it.

  8. Zugswang says

    I’m all for getting rid of balloons. Call me a buzzkill, but I’ve always hated those volatile little noise-makers.

    Though I will miss making my voice sound funny.

  9. sailor1031 says

    I understand Gingrich has a plan to build a spacebase on the sun so there’ll be plenty of helium soon. He’ll just be able to step outside and fill a bucket with the stuff any time he wants.

  10. jamessweet says

    :p

    If that were the only fun thing that reality had to go screwing up, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But let’s face it: Science has shown that 83% of stuff that is awesome is ruined by science. (Science even ruined the awesomeness of the previous sentence, by showing that I just made that up)

    I’m putting off sending my wife the recent info I read about the dangers of wood smoke. For now, I’m just going with the idea that “What I didn’t used to know until a few weeks ago can’t hurt me…”

  11. left0ver1under says

    I always thought it was extracted from the atmosphere, the same as nitrogen. Shows how much I know.

    I’ve never seen the need for helium balloons, so I’ll agree to that. It’s another case of people not being happy until it’s gone, until everything has been used up and there’s none left.

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