And the problem is way more severe than the problem of a world without petroleum. We have multiple alternatives for petroleum, ethanol-based fuel, for example. But for many practical applications, helium is non-renewable with no alternatives, whatsoever.
At present, helium is available in the market at a cheap price – I will explain the reason in next section – because of which it’s getting depleted at an astonishing rate. In the next 30-100 years, the world could run out of its widely used inert gas that plays a critical role in this modern world.
They couldn’t sell it fast enough and the world price for helium gas is ridiculously cheap.
The world without helium will break havoc loose for hospitals around the world using MRI machines where helium is used as a cryogen. Scientists use it in MRI scanners for cooling metal for superconductivity. LHC at CERN is an example.
Further, Helium mass spectrometer uses helium to detect leaks and is used in many industries such as air conditioning, automotive, food packing, aerosol packing, gas bottle, tire valves, etc. There is no gas but helium that can do this. There exist no alternative to helium for detecting leaks.
The space industry uses it for cleaning explosive materials from rocket engines and as a fuel as well. Deep sea divers use it with a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen under high pressure. Again, there exist no better alternative for these critical activities.
Helium-3, its isotope, is vital for next-gen research on waste-free nuclear reactors. These nuclear reactors will produce energy using the similar nuclear reaction of that of the Sun.
Some Statistics In 2006, the world helium was estimated to be 51.9 billion cubic meters in 2006 while in 2014, the US’ domestic use of helium was estimated to be 34 million cubic meters.
Why are we running out of helium?
Being so light, once helium is released, it leaves Earth for space. Recapturing it is expensive. Thus, once it’s free, we have lost it. On top of that, there is not the artificial way to manufacture it.
On Earth, terrestrial rocks decay and release helium. This is only way helium gets produced on this planet. To make things worse, the US govt. supplied it at way cheaper price which led to its misuse.
The United States has been stockpiling helium since the 1960s in a National Helium Reserve called the Bush Dome, a deep underground reservoir outside of Amarillo, Texas. By the mid-1970s 1.2 billion cubic meters of the gas was stored there. The current reserve is approximately 0.6 billion cubic meters, or roughly 4 times the current world market.
But, Chan notes, in 1996 the Helium Privatization Act mandated that the Department of the Interior sell off all the stockpiled helium by 2015. “As a consequence,” he says, “the United States government is selling the equivalent of 40 percent of the world market of helium at a below-market price.” (Source)
Nothing captures the misuse of Helium well but the below quote of Prof. Richardson
Party balloons filled with helium are too cheap, and they should really cost about $100 (£75) to reflect the precious nature of the gas they contain
— Professor Robert. C. Richardson, Noble Laurate, Physics, 1996
What steps we must take to make Helium last longer?
The first and foremost step to take is to limit/curb wasteful use of this noble gas – party balloons. Another way is to recycle it wherever recycling is possible. For example, in cryogenic system installing a closed re-circulation system could do that.
Recently researchers found a helium gas field in Tanzania and the researchers hope to find similar things in the future, too. There should be better policies for helium exploration and storage which avert its wastage and ensures longevity.
However, this doesn’t change the fact that this noble gas is non-renewable.