February 21st, 2015
Last week we had a party at United Academics and, yes, there were party balloons filled with helium. It was after the party that I read an article at The Guardian about the shortage of helium caused by party balloons. I know, it’s quite old news, since Nobel Prize Robert Richardson warned about that in 2000, but still it seems to need more coverage. What’s so important about helium in the scientific world?
Many research facilities work with helium, using it to run super-cool refrigerators. The main quality of this gas is that it doesn’t solidify even under extreme conditions. ‘Helium is particularly important for running super-conducting magnets’, Professor Jim Wild, of Sheffield University, told The Guardian. ‘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.’
Does this mean that MRI scanners may stop working if running out of helium? Apparently yes. Says David Ward, of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy: ‘I will not be happy if I cannot have a medical scan in my 70s, because we wasted helium on party balloons while I was in my 30s.’
Then, why is it still considered a cheap gas? Half of the world’s helium supply is owned by the United States, which in the 90s decided to sell it at low prices to get rid of most of the stockpile, against the advice of scientists like Robert Richardson.
As the world is running out of helium, all eyes are on the moon, as this gas is incredibly abundant in our satellite. It might be a matter of time until we build mines in the moon to extract helium, but in the meanwhile it would be good to take care of an increasingly scarce resource.
Photo: Paul Sapiano/flickr