Nation's helium reserve running on empty?
Trapped within a subterranean expanse of porous rock near Amarillo, Tex., is the world's largest supply of helium, the Federal Helium Reserve. 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 super fluid 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.