Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Impending Helium Famine

Just when you thought there wasn't anything else to possibly worry about along comes the great impending ......helium shortage. Physics Today fills us in on the implications of a shortage of the universe's second most abundant element:

"Drained budgets and postponed projects are widespread these days among the physics labs, manufacturers, and other businesses that depend on helium for their work, direct consequences of a worldwide shortage of the element, which ironically is one of the most abundant on Earth.

For the last 10 years, groups around the US, including the American Physical Society, have been predicting that a severe shortage of the gas—which has many more valuable applications than filling party balloons—would emerge early in the 21st century. Pointing to a 1996 federal law that mandates sale of the federal helium reserve by 2015, they've warned that once the reserve—which supplies some 40% of domestic needs and 35% of worldwide requirements—is sold off, it can never be replaced.

The prophecies are already coming true, but for a different reason. The supply crimp that arose last year is the result of production glitches around the world that gas industry experts say underscore the need to develop new helium sources. If supply is tight now, they say, it's likely to be far more constricted once the reserve is depleted.

A byproduct of radioactive decay within Earth, helium is often a component of natural gas. Helium refiners extract natural gas from gas fields—in the US, the fields are mostly in Texas and Kansas—and cool it to below 90 K. At that point, everything except helium liquefies; the helium is distilled and compressed or further cooled to liquid form. In addition to the federal reserve, which is in a gas field near Amarillo, Texas, several sources worldwide supply helium: a handful of other US gas fields, and plants in other countries including Algeria, Qatar, Poland, and Russia....

The situation is likely to become even more dire in the near future. Kornbluth and Leslie Theiss, field office manager at the US Bureau of Land Management's helium operations in Amarillo, say the worldwide demand for helium is growing, fueled at least in part by the growth of high-tech manufacturing in China, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. Companies in those countries use helium in the production of semiconductors, flat-panel displays, and optical fibers."

So it appears that would be Donald Duck imitators and lawnchair pilots will be in for rough times ahead as we further deplete the Earth of its valuables.

No comments: