Geena Zebrasky – Features Writer
Helium: the lone element resting on top of the rest of the noble gases on the periodic table, best known by the average person for its balloon-filling abilities. Well, that’s unless you’re talking to a scientist–then, helium is best known for its ability to reach near absolute zero temperatures (and other incredible properties). When some materials are cooled to these temperatures, they become superconductors: they lose all electrical resistance, and can generate large magnetic fields. Thus, the unique ability of liquid helium to maintain these low temperatures is crucial to scientific research, as well as the medical industry.
For instance, these magnetic fields are utilized in MRI machines–without liquid helium, these machines would be rendered useless. Superconducting magnets are also utilized in nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) instruments, a critical technology for chemists in analyzing the structure of organic molecules. NMR is an irreplaceable tool for chemical research. These are just two of the instruments used daily in which helium plays an essential role. This element’s use in scientific instruments affects all fields of science.
The smallest element on the periodic table doesn’t just affect the scientific and medical industries, though–aerospace technologies rely on helium as well. Rocket propulsion systems utilize the unique capability of helium to remain a gas until extremely low temperatures, and they use this to pressurize the tanks of liquid hydrogen or other fuel in order to force fuel into the rocket engines.
Helium is used in many different hydrogen-based propellant systems because it’s the only element with a lower boiling point–other elements would freeze or react with the liquid hydrogen. So, this small element is a national interest, critical to agencies like NASA and the Department of Defense.
Interestingly, helium’s first big debut was with the onset of World War I, as helium was a necessary part of the zeppelins used. Although Germany was best known for their use of zeppelins, the United States also developed similar aircraft: blimps. In fact, in the 1920s, 90% of the helium extracted in the U.S. went to the Navy’s airship program.
At this point, you’re probably wondering where we even get helium. Helium is a product of radioactive decay within the Earth, and this takes millions of years to occur. Some of this helium gets trapped in rock formations, and as a result, almost all of our helium is obtained as a byproduct of natural gas production. However, not all fields have an abundance, and extracting helium is a complex process (and so is refining). As a result, most natural gas extractors don’t bother with it and instead vent it off with other ‘wastes’ of production, so there’s only a handful of fields where the extraction of helium occurs.
The United States is the world’s largest producer of helium. In the 1960s, the U.S. government created the Federal Helium Reserve. Located in the Cliffside gas field near Amarillo, Texas, this reserve was created during the Cold War as helium began to again be considered a key resource to the government. There is no storage facility for crude helium like this anywhere else.
The reserve also serves as a connection and storage point for private crude helium production plants. The federal government used to be directly involved in production, but The Helium Privatization Act of 1996 was passed following a low period in the helium market in an effort to repay the debt of running the helium program to the Treasury. With this act, the Bureau of Land Management was to shut down its production facilities and sell crude helium in the reserve at a fixed rate and price.
Without getting too into the weeds, the system for selling that was established created a volatile market for helium–one that was demonstrated in a 2010 report by the National Research Council to allow private firms to profit off of the federal reserve through the distortion of prices created by the conditions of this act.
So, in 2013, in an effort to reestablish a competitive market price, the Helium Stewardship Act was passed. This continued to mandate that the Reserve close and dispose of its assets, establishing a date of no later than September 30, 2021. However, this again didn’t go as planned, and in 2019, a helium shortage caused prices to skyrocket.
Many scientists find this instability and total privatization to be worrying because the federal reserve is “the only place in the world where helium can be stockpiled to provide a buffer against supply fluctuations.”
With the unreliable market proving to be a price barrier to many scientists and potential shortages worrying the medical industry, more people are turning towards recycling their helium. By capturing it as it naturally boils off, and reliquifying it on site, researchers have the ability to reuse their helium. However, these technologies have a very expensive up-front cost and aren’t easily accessible to a lot of small scale researchers.
As it turns out, one tiny element can play a big and necessary role in countless technologies, from NMR to rockets to replacing nitrogen in the breathing tanks for deep sea divers (I had to include that application somehow). Helium even has its own place among the 35 elements listed on the Department of the Interior’s 2018 list of “35 Minerals Deemed Critical to U.S. National Security and the Economy.” So next time you go and buy a balloon, I hope you think about helium’s place on the list of limited resources that we are struggling to manage.
– The National Research Council, “The Impact of Selling the Federal Helium Reserve”
– American Physical Society, “Responding to the U.S. Research Community’s Liquid Helium Crisis”
– Science Magazine, “New U.S. Rules on Helium Sales Said to Stifle Competition”
– U.S. Department of Interior, press release about 2018 list of 35 critical minerals
– Physics Today, “Helium Shortage Has Ended, at Least for Now”
– Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, “Helium Stewardship Act of 2013”