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Correction to This Article
The Federal Helium Reserve that was established in the early 1960s was under the control of the former U.S. Bureau of Mines, not the Bureau of Land Management as was previously stated in the article. When the Bureau of Mines closed in the mid-1990s, the Bureau of Land Management took control of helium operations.

Nation's helium reserve running on empty?

Walkersville teacher and coach Ronnie Voigt leads a group of fourth graders in a Space Day competition with their TechnoTitan helium balloon project which won first place for most creative.
Walkersville teacher and coach Ronnie Voigt leads a group of fourth graders in a Space Day competition with their TechnoTitan helium balloon project which won first place for most creative. (Ricky Carioti - Ricky Carioti )

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By Leslie Tamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2010; 5:00 PM

Trapped within a subterranean expanse of porous rock near Amarillo, Tex., is the world's largest supply of helium, the Federal Helium Reserve.

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The U.S. government is on track to sell the last of this stockpile within five years and let the private sector control the market.

But some scientists fear that within a few decades, there may not be any helium to control. In fact, they say we're close to running out of the second most common element in the universe. (In our solar system, most helium is inside the sun.)

At the current rate of usage, "the world would run out in 25 years, plus or minus five years," Robert Richardson, a Cornell University physicist who won a Nobel Prize in 1996 for his work with superfluid helium, told a gathering of Nobel laureates in August.

This is troubling news for anyone who uses helium, and that's not just stores selling party balloons.

Anyone getting an MRI depends on helium, whose extremely stable, supercooling properties maintain the scanning machines' superconductive magnets. MRI machines account for more than a quarter of the helium used in the United States; it is also widely used in welding and provides the inert atmosphere necessary to manufacture optical fibers and liquid crystal display (LCD) screens.

Helium is used to pressurize and purge the fuel tanks in NASA's rockets. It prevents the particle accelerators at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois and the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, from overheating.

"Helium is central to half of my ongoing research and the dissertation work of several students," said Daniel Lathrop, a University of Maryland physics professor.

The Earth's retrievable sources of helium were created over millennia by the radioactive decay of rock, and it is often extracted from natural gas. The most productive reserves are in the United States, which also consumes about half the helium used worldwide.

In the past few years, Algeria, Qatar and Russia have created helium processing facilities. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Poland, Canada and China also have natural gas fields that could produce helium. But the Federal Helium Reserve is the only known place on the planet with the kind of rock formation that can store helium. In addition, the helium naturally occurring there is found at an unusually high concentration - it makes up about 2 percent of the reserve's natural gas, compared with less than 0.3 percent in most gas fields.

Richardson, who in 2009 co-chaired a National Research Council committee on the sale of the helium reserve, has repeatedly warned that the United States is squandering its control of this unique, nonrenewable resource.

"We will have no helium," he said in an interview, "and we will have to rely on Russia and Qatar and Algeria."


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