What Happens If We Run Out Of Helium?


Helium is fun for parties and making videos
for the internet, but for scientists, helium has way more use than just getting a rise
out of people. Hey breathing animals, Trace here for DNews.
Get ready to freak out. There’s a HELIUM SHORTAGE!!! FREAK OUT. Okay, we got that out of our collective
systems? Great. See, before helium fills your party balloons it has to be harvested. And
though it can be pulled from the air, the far easier way is to extract it from the Earth’s
crust just like oil! Natural gas is commonly 7-percent helium. So as it gets more difficult
to find and extract, it will get more expensive, which is terrible not just for the giant inflatable
alphabet industry — which came out of nowhere by the way — but also for science! Helium is the second most abundant element
in the universe, but it’s actually not that common on Earth. And, though we mostly associate
it with balloons and silly voices, helium is way cooler than that. Helium is a noble
gas — which means it’s inert, and unlike my ex, it’s VERY stable and non-toxic. It’s
great for filling things like dirigibles, and deep-sea divers use helium mixed with
oxygen because it’s more stable at depth… It’s so stable that rocket builders pressurize
fuel tanks with it, it’s reliable for radiation detection systems, and arc welders (who play
in temperatures above 3000 Celsius) use it at as gaseous safety blanket. Cryogenics companies,
nuclear plants, satellite manufacturers, and wind tunnel engineers use it too, because
it can handle reaallly cold temperatures. Helium is. the. coolest. Below its boiling point of negative 269C,
Helium becomes a superfluid — a liquid that flows without friction, and as we close in
on absolute zero helium behaves as a supersolid and has even more crazy traits! It’s unique
thermal properties make helium popular with all the crowds: Physicists use it with their
superconducting magnets on the Large Hadron Collider, engineers put it in MRI scanners
in hospitals, and helium-neon lasers power supermarket barcode scanners. This stuff is
everywhere! And yet. It’s not really. On Earth, Helium — officially called, Helium-4,
comes from radioactive decay. When a radioactive element like uranium or thorium breaks down
over time (or decays), it will occasionally lose two protons and two neutrons. They’ll
just, break off; this is called Alpha Decay. If that alpha particle grabs a couple of electrons,
BOOM helium-4! It happens all the time. And yet, we’re not surrounded by helium, because
it’s lighter than our atmosphere — so it floats all the way to the top, where it’s
stripped off into space by the sun. And if you think Helium-4 is super rare, meet
it’s cousin isotope: Helium-3. Helium-3 can be used as revolutionary future fuel for fusion
power plants, but it’s less than a fraction of a percent of all helium on Earth… so
we’d have to mine it on the moon. Actually, helium is way more common in space overall… So if we’re in a shortage… who should get
the helium, scientists who need it for experiments or Over the Hill balloons at the drug store?
Maybe we should feel bad about wasting helium-4… Especially since the price we pay isn’t really…
right. See, from 1925 till the 1990s, the government was stockpiling helium from natural
gas fields in Texas, but then decided to flood the market and sell it all in 1996. So now,
the helium supply is inflated — pun intended. Though, luckily, scientists just found a huge
reservoir in Tanzania, so our supply should last for decades, but even still, it’s not
exactly renewable… so eventually we will be out again. Cue sad balloon floating away
into a blue sky. Interestingly, SourceFed covered the “world
running out of helium” story like 4 years ago. Have you heard of SourceFed? They do
pop-culture news, comedy, it’s like us, but faster paced and funnier! Click the link below
to get your daily dose of the trending news you need to know! Do you feel bad for using all our helium you
jerk?