Bursting Your Bubble: Global Helium Shortage Expected To Affect More Than Just Balloon Sales
Despite what you may think, helium is used in a variety of industries. In fact, the specialty gas market is categorized into 6 applications: electronics and semiconductors, analytical and calibration, refrigeration, medical and healthcare, manufacturing, and others.Though the element is extremely popular at parties (an 11-inch latex balloon can last 12 to 20 hours filled with helium), they play serious roles in the medical and broadband fields; as the world faces a shortage of the vital gas, both will need to cope with the loss.
In terms of medicine, helium is relied on as a super coolant in crucial imaging machines; Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) devices are used to form pictures of the anatomy and the physiological processes of the body in both health and disease. In this case, helium acts as a super coolant, much like the coolant circulating through the radiator of your vehicle.
“Helium is absolutely essential to MRI production,” says Tom Rauch, global sourcing manager for GE Healthcare, one of the largest manufacturers of MRI systems. “Helium is currently the only element on Earth that can effectively keep the magnet this cold and consequently allow for the high field strength, stable and uniform magnetic fields that make modern MRI systems possible,” he says. The element performs the same role in Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy machines, which examine the structure of all chemicals.
“It is one of the most important machines for characterizing when you make something in a chemical lab,” said Washington University chemistry professor Sophia Hayes. “In a worldwide shortage, this will become a problem.”
Helium also serves a function in our telecommunications network. Fiber optic cables also use the gas as a coolant; they’re capable of transferring a remarkable amount of information — a single optical fiber can carry over 90,000 TV channels — at very fast speeds, making helium an ideal way to cool rapidly silica strands in a tube as glass fibers are drawn from a glass billet or preform.
Why Is The Shortage Occurring?
Technically speaking, helium is the second-most abundant element in the universe. So why are we facing a shortage? Simply put, we’re running out. The U.S. holds a majority share of the world’s helium production, but we have begun to deplete our resources; in 2012, our largest helium natural gas field was expected to last until 2020 at the latest.
As of right now, the future of helium is uncertain. If we are unable to uncover more sources, we’ll need to find a suitable replacement; otherwise, many aspects of human life will be affected.