Monday, August 23, 2010

Cornell Professor Tries To Sell Us Helium

Helium is the second most abundant chemical element in the solar system. Good luck running out of it in 25 years.

DailyMail: Scientists say Earth's helium reserves 'will run out within 25 years' (and party balloons should cost £65 each).

It is more commonly known as the gas that fills cheap party balloons and makes your voice squeak if you inhale it.

But helium is actually a precious resource that is being squandered with Earth's reserves of it due to run out within 25 to 30 years, experts have warned.

Earth’s resources of helium are being depleted at an astonishing rate, an effect which will spell disaster for hospitals which use it to cool MRI scanners.

The world's biggest store of helium - the most commonly used inert gas - lies in a disused airfield in Amarillo, Texas, and is being sold off far too cheaply.

But in 1996, the US government passed a law which states that the facility - the US National Helium Reserve - must be completely sold off by 2015 to recoup the price of installing it.

This means that the helium, a non-renewable gas, is being quickly sold off at increasingly cheap prices, making it uneconomical to recycle.

Nasa uses the gas to clean its rockets of fuel while liquid helium is used to cool nuclear reactors and space telescopes.

Nobel laureate Robert Richardson, a professor of physics at Cornell University in New York, told New Scientist magazine that once our helium reserves are gone there will be no way of replacing it.

He also warned that although some substitutes can be found for some applications where helium is used, it will be impossible to use a different material for MRI scanners.

He told the magazine: There are some substitutes, but it can't be replaced for cryogenics, where liquid helium cools superconducting magnets for MRI scanners.

'There is no other substance which has a lower boiling point than helium. It is also used in the manufacture of fibre optics and liquid crystal displays.

'The use of helium in cryogenics is self-contained, in that the helium is recycled. The same could be done in other industries if helium was expensive enough that manufacturers thought recovering it was worthwhile.'

Helium is formed through the slow radioactive decay of rocks on Earth and nearly all of our reserves have been formed as a by-product of the extraction of natural gas.
The only way to obtain more helium would be to capture it from the decay of tritium - a radioactive hydrogen isotope, which the U.S. stopped making n 1988.

The US stores around 80 per cent of the world's helium and so its decision to let it go at an extremely low price has a massive knock-on affect on its market.

But Professor Richardson said that low price of helium meant that it was being ‘squandered’ rather than being treated as a precious resource.

He said: 'The problem is that these supplies will run out in a mere 25 years, and the US government has a policy of selling helium at a ridiculously low price.'

And he said that the only way to deal with the problem would be for the free market in helium to prevail.

He said this will mean that a helium balloon of the kind used at children’s parties would cost $100 in the future as the price soared.

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