Recently during a conversation with a coworker, it became clear that very few people are aware of a critical resource shortage: helium. This gas is responsible for providing buoyant jubilation at birthday parties, facilitating lawn chair aeronautics, and serving in sensitive laboratory equipment. (Ever have an MRI scan? Liquid helium was probably cooling the machine's magnets.) Yet there's a very limited supply of this resource here on planet Earth, and we are rapidly using it!
At the core of helium's scarcity is the very reason we use it: it floats. When helium is released into the atmosphere, it floats up and away. Because helium is a noble gas there are no chemical reactions that can bring it back for human industry to reclaim it. Compounding this problem is that the creation of helium is only currently known to occur in sizable quantities near Amarillo, TX where natural gas accumulates near radioactive elements.
Estimates range from 25 to 100 years before there is no more helium on Earth unless recycling initiatives are implemented as soon as possible. It is crazy to think that within my lifetime children might be unable to hold a helium balloon, not to mention what it will mean to medical and scientific industries that rely on this unique gas!
Image: Corbis via Discovery
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