Over the weekend, the New York Times’ Matthew Wald reported that we're running out of helium-3, a rare but useful helium isotope, thanks to a bit of bureaucratic blundering:
The United States is running out of a rare gas that is crucial for detecting smuggled nuclear weapons materials because one arm of the Energy Department was selling the gas six times as fast as another arm could accumulate it, and the two sides failed to communicate for years, according to a new Congressional audit.
The gas, helium-3, is a byproduct of the nuclear weapons program, but as the number of nuclear weapons has declined, so has the supply of the gas. Yet, as the supply was shrinking, the government was investing more than $200 million to develop detection technology that required helium-3.
Now, scientists might be able to invent new weapons detectors, but helium-3 has also been proposed as a fuel for next-generation fusion reactors. Trouble is, there's just not all that much helium-3 to go around. There's plenty of the stuff in the earth's mantle, but it's nearly impossible to retrieve, and manufacturing tritium (which decays into helium-3) is fantastically energy-intensive. Harvesting the gas from decommissioned nuclear weapons was always the most economical approach. One option left would be to mine it from the moon's surface: indeed, Russia and China have both said that helium-3 mining would be a major goal of future lunar explorations.
In any case, Wald's story reminded me of our other helium crisis. Back in the 1920s, the United States decided to create a national reserve for plain old helium — this was back when the dirigible seemed like a useful military apparatus — and stockpiled the gas over the course of the 20th century, in a porous rock structure near Armarillo, Tex. But in 1996, Congress was eager to cut government expenses and figured there was no longer any need for a helium reserve, so it decided to sell off all of the spare helium by 2015. (It was not unlike today, when many conservatives are calling on the U.S. government to sell off its assets instead of hiking the debt ceiling.)
A small hitch ensued: Congress fixed the price of helium way too low. That's partly why people can afford to fritter away helium on party balloons and Donald Duck imitations. With the pricetag plummeting, private companies had no incentive to seek out new sources. And, as a result, the country may run out of helium in short order. That's troubling, because helium is actually very useful: The superconducting magnets in MRI machines require helium, as do certain manufacturing processes for LCD screens and optical fibers. The Large Hadron Collider would overheat without a healthy supply of liquid helium. And much of our helium, artificially cheap, is getting wasted on clown balloons, eventually leaking into the air where it can't be recovered.
Robert Richardson, a physicist and Nobel laureate at Cornell, has been warning about our helium doomsday for years, noting that at current usage rates, "the world would run out in 25 years." With luck, that won't happen. Congress could always change its reserve policy and align its pricing with the market. Or new U.S. reserves could conceivably be found, extracted from natural-gas fields. Still, it's a potential problem (even if not the gravest crisis facing the country). And it's a reminder that a fire sale of government assets — an idea that's floating up right now — isn't always so cost-free.
Brad Plumer is an associate editor at the New Republic.