Ever wondered where helium comes from?

"He" stands for helium, an element used for more than balloons.
"He" stands for helium, an element used for more than balloons. (The Washington Post)
Monday, December 13, 2010

Many people think of helium as an essential ingredient to a good birthday party. Because it's lighter than air, it makes colorful party balloons float.

But what if suddenly there were no more helium?

Don't laugh, experts are concerned that the supply of the gas is running low.

First, you need to understand that helium is used in much more than party balloons. This important element does not catch fire, and it can get much colder than other gases, so it's very good at keeping sensitive equipment from overheating. That's why helium is used in large medical machines, for welding, to give NASA rockets the right pressure and to make certain computer and television screens.

"Helium is central to half of my ongoing research," said Daniel Lathrop, a University of Maryland physics professor.

Helium is the second-most common element in the universe; in our solar system it is mostly on the sun. The helium found on Earth was created over millions of years by the decay of metals and elements underground.

The United States uses half of the world's known supply of helium.

Today, most of the helium that is used in this country comes from large underground deposits in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, where there is a unique kind of rock that can trap the super-light gas. The government began stockpiling helium in 1925 so it would have enough to use in airships (blimps), which were considered an important military technology at that time.

But with billions of cubic feet of the gas in storage at the Federal Helium Reserve, the government decided in 1996 to sell off its helium by 2015.

With that supply decreasing, other countries, including Russia and Qatar, have created helium processing plants. And there may be supplies of helium elsewhere that have not been discovered. But one problem is that the Federal Helium Reserve is the only known place with the kind of rock formation that can store helium.

Experts say there is still plenty of helium to supply current needs for 25 years. (That means that your birthday parties are probably safe, but what about your kids' parties?) Manufacturers are looking for ways to recycle the helium they use so that less of it escapes into the atmosphere.

Still, it's possible that in a couple of decades, the price of helium could go way up because there is less of it available. In fact, Robert Richardson, a Cornell University physicist who won a Nobel Prize in 1996 for his work with helium, has said that helium is so valuable, a single helium balloon should cost $100!

- Staff reports

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