The government shutdown, as recently discussed on this blog, has vastly curtailed the activities of federal science agencies ranging from NASA to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (whose researchers are currently wringing their hands over being unable to track a new outbreak of salmonella from contaminated chicken). Yet one important scientific resource managed to escape the effects of the furloughs: on Sept. 27, Congress passed H.R. 527, the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013, which ensures that the Federal Helium Reserve in Texas can continue to operate for the foreseeable future. While this is certainly good news for birthday parties everywhere, it’s also encouraging for the surprising amount of research and technology that depends on the noble gas.
Helium is mined from underground deposits in association with natural gas, which makes Texas a natural location for the national supply. At up to 1.9 percent helium, Texan deposits are also richer in the gas than other deposits around the world. The federal government took control of all U.S. helium production in 1925, originally to ensure a sufficient supply of nonflammable gas for its military observation balloons and airships after the explosive crash of the hydrogen-lifted USS Roma in 1922 (15 years before the significantly more famous Hindenberg disaster). Since then, the reserve has evolved into a major provider of the gas for the U.S. and the world: 42% of the country’s helium comes from the facility, as does 30% of the world’s supply.
Less than one percent of the demand for helium comes from party balloons; much more important are uses that take advantage of helium’s properties as a coolant. Because the gas can be chilled to near absolute zero without solidifying, physicists use it to maintain the temperature of experiments that study the properties of matter under very cold conditions. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines depend on helium to maintain the frigid environment necessary for the operation of their superconducting wires. New designs for nuclear power plants call for helium coolant as a way to eliminate the need for steam, making the generation of power more efficient.
Other applications use helium because of its inert characteristics. High-temperature welders create a “shield” of helium over their work to prevent metals from oxidizing during the process. In industrial settings where leaking gas pipes can be dangerous, helium is a safe way to test for problems. Even some lasers use helium, in conjunction with neon, to provide a stable medium for the excitation of light.
The U.S. reserve contains over 10 billion cubic feet of helium, and remaining world supplies are estimated at 638 billion cubic feet. While these numbers sound impressive, current projections for helium use suggest that underground deposits of helium will be completely tapped out by 2052. Maintaining a stockpile of helium is a good start, but the government should also encourage the use of helium recapture systems that reduce losses. Until researchers figure out an inexpensive way to isolate helium from the atmosphere, the vital gas should be considered a nonrenewable resource.