Helium Reserves Running Low: Fact or Fiction?
Nuclear reactors, the large Hadron Collider, a welder’s workshop, a birthday party, and an MRI machine all have something in common: their need for helium. Whether in liquid or gas form, room temperature or near absolute zero, more than 8 billion cubic feet of this gas is used worldwide each and every year. With all of this usage, the demand for helium has never been higher, and you may have heard about helium reserves running low. But is it true? Are we running out, especially compared to other industrial gases?
This is something that we at US Gas, serving greater Chicago and the surrounding areas, watch carefully. So, while it is true that we see some helium reserves running low as more and more industries tap into them, let’s take a closer look to see if helium reserves running low is really a cause for concern and if will we run out of helium.
Helium reserves running low are a reality, but we are also still discovering new natural deposits of helium deep within the earth. One such discovery was made in Tanzania. Researchers from the University of Oxford found the deposit of helium deep in the rock where it has been gathering as a result of volcanic heat. And there is a lot of it!
It is estimated that around 54 billion cubic feet of the gas is there. Do you know that squeaky, high-pitch voice you get when you inhale helium? 54 billion cubic feet of the gas is enough to let every single person on the planet get that for an amazing 20 minutes! Even better, this is a low estimate and many researchers feel there is likely much more. That’s just under seven times the annual global demand. As impressive as that is, however, it is not an end-all solution to our helium reserves running low.
After all, Earth does have a limited supply of the gas, and once it is in the air it quickly escapes into the atmosphere and into space. Due to the light nature of the gas and the natural holes in rocks and stratus, helium has always been and always will be escaping earth and rising into the atmosphere. So, in that sense, we should always be mindful of the potential for Earth’s helium reserves running low.
Helium usually is contained in small pockets within rock. So drilling is difficult, and often it is not time- or cost-effective to tap into every underground reserve found. This is why scientists have to look for natural pockets, deeper within the crust, that are full of a lot of helium gas. These stores are millions or billions of years old. It is these ancient reserves that will help keep the helium reserve crisis at bay.
Will We Run Out of Helium?
If helium reserves running low seem like a result of the fossil fuel industry, you may be surprised to find that is not the case at all! Actually, most of the world’s helium comes from natural gas. A good source will be around 3 to 7 percent helium, which can be extracted and separated from the natural gas. Most natural gas pockets, however, will not surpass 0.5 to 2 percent concentration. That is why the find in Tanzania is so exciting. That 0.5 to 2 percent is nothing compared to the estimated 10 percent pocket that has been found in Tanzania.
Across the globe, helium is about a thousand times less lucrative than other gas, so while it is the fossil fuel industry that is instrumental in the production and collection of helium, it is not the primary focus at all. “Normally, it’s an afterthought,” says Samuel Burton, assistant field manager at the Federal Helium Program. “It’s something that they don’t even consider because the natural gas makes so much more money for them.” (Wired.com)
The most obvious change that will likely be seen in the coming years regarding helium reserves running low will be the struggle to balance helium reserve levels with a seemingly ever-growing rate of consumption. This is likely to make the price for helium will go up. Many say this is more of a precautionary step rather than a response to helium reserves running low.
An example of this process can best be described as this: helium is in high demand, and someday we may face helium reserves running low. So to delay that and to hold off on tapping into reserves as long as possible, prices will rise. This will prevent less frivolous uses, preserving the helium services that more desperately need it and can afford to use it.
With that in mind, however, consider this. In the United States, there is an estimated 20 years of known supplies for the gas that are easily, readily available. This is more than any other region of the globe right now. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Interior estimated the existence of over 1,169 billion cubic feet of helium still contained within the earth here in the United State. That’s around 117 years’ worth at our current usage rate. This has led many to question the idea that helium reserves running low is even an issue, and leaves some people wondering where the question “will we run out of helium” even came from.
Helium Reserves Running Low? Actually, the Future of Helium is Bright!
As with any other natural resource, helium isn’t infinite. It is like oil or coal in that sense, so it is definitely worth conserving and protecting. The focus remains on getting more helium, finding ways to produce it, and looking for options for capturing and reusing helium in certain applications. Many research labs, for instance, are working on ways to capture and recycle helium that they use in various processes and applications rather than letting it escape into the atmosphere. This, too, will go a long way in postponing any future situations of helium reserves running low.
The keys here are balance and planning ahead. We likely do not have a crisis situation just yet. But that day will come at some point, and it may come sooner if our usage of the gas continues to goes up. If we focus on being smart with the helium we have, and working on protecting the helium that remains to be tapped into, helium reserves running low will be a non-issue for generations to come.
So there is no need to worry about helium reserves running low because of some festive balloons at the next birthday party you go to. It is not likely that we will we run out of helium in the next 100 years, so we have time to plan and prepare and get smarter!
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