One thing we have learnt this week- Helium its a gas!

Spaceflight (This site doesn’t just cover depletion of oil but also occasionally other materials such as helium.  There are several things I expect you did not know about helium since neither did I.  First its the second most abundant element in the universe behind hydrogen.  This means there cannot be a shortage of it right?  Wrong.  The price has increased dramatically in the last 15 years (500%) due to depletion.  This is because of the most surprising fact about Helium.  Its mined.  Yes that’s right you did read it right -mined.  Helium on Earth is the end product of radioactive decay of uranium and thorium.  I always assumed it was extracted from the air like other inert gases.  It builds up under the ground and gets trapped.  If it escapes being very light it disappears into space.

So what’s the problem?  The problem is that has very important scientific uses from launching instruments into near space on high altitude balloons to use in medical scanners such as Nuclear magnetic resonance machines.  These use helium as the coolant.  Its also used in anaesthetic gases.   The supply problem has led to calls for a ban on its use in kiddies balloons.

The good news a huge new reserve of helium has been found in West Africa along with some in natural gas in Qatar.  This should keep us going for a while and technical innovations are meaning we may need less of it.  However, we still need to stop using it for children’s balloons.  It is non-renewable.

Neil

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