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Starts With A Bang

Humanity Is Thoughtlessly Wasting An Essential, Non-Renewable Resource: Helium

What took hundreds of millions of years to create is being wasted on… party balloons?

There’s a natural resource found beneath Earth’s surface that’s been building up for hundreds of millions of years. It plays a pivotal role in some of society’s most important scientific and medical applications, from MRI machines to superconductivity to particle accelerators to the creation of the strongest magnetic fields on Earth. There is no known substitute for this unique resource; it’s truly irreplaceable.

There is no good way to synthesize this essential ingredient in any sort of substantial quantity, either. We have only what has naturally built up over our planet’s natural geologic history. The resource in question? The lightest inert gas found in nature: helium. Instead of mining, storing, and distributing it for these much-needed medical and scientific uses, we’re squandering it on balloons and squeaky voices. Here’s why that wastefulness must end.

There’s an extensive network of helium plants and pipelines located above where the United States has a naturally rich store of helium, but if we don’t conserve it, we are dooming ourselves to a future where we simply live in a state where we have insufficient helium resources. It will take hundreds of millions of years for Earth to replenish its helium stores naturally. (BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT)

When helium was discovered on Earth, its unique properties immediately lent itself to a myriad of scientific uses. As a lighter-than-air gas, it could be used for buoyancy or even levitation. Since it’s both non-reactive and inert, it can be used at high temperatures and in oxygen-rich environments without a risk of explosion. The speed of sound is almost three times greater in helium than in air, leading to acoustic applications.

Perhaps most importantly, at atmospheric pressure but at low temperatures, it liquefies but never solidifies, making it the ultimate coolant for particle accelerators, MRI machines, and superconductors. At low enough temperatures, helium even becomes a superfluid: an ultra-rare state of matter that exhibits no friction or viscosity. A superfluid in motion will remain in motion forever, with no energy losses to slow it down.

Helium’s unique elemental properties, such as its liquid nature at extremely low temperatures and its superfluidic properties, make it well-suited to a series of scientific applications that no other element or compound can match. The superfluid helium shown here is dripping because there is no friction in the fluid to keep it from creeping up the sides of the container and spilling over, which it does spontaneously.(ALFRED LEITNER)

Yet helium, despite being the second most abundant element in the Universe as a whole, is extremely limited in abundance here on the surface of the Earth. The second lightest element in the periodic table, it’s named for Helios, the ancient Greek sun god, because it was discovered on the Sun, spectroscopically, before it was ever found on Earth. It was only discovered terrestrially in 1882, where we saw that same, unique spectral line in the lava flowing from an eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

A few years later, scientists were able to isolate helium in a laboratory by chemically treating igneous rocks, separating the noble gases from the atoms they were bound together with. It might seem surprising that such a common ingredient in the Universe is so rare on Earth, but with a little science, it’s easy to see why.

A modern high-field clinical MRI scanner, which achieves magnetic fields of 3 Tesla. Those field strengths can only be achieved with superconducting magnets, which necessitate the use of liquid helium. MRI machines are the largest medical or scientific use of helium today. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS USER KASUGAHUANG)

In the early stages of the Solar System, helium was incredibly abundant. The giant molecular cloud of gas that collapsed and fragmented to give rise to our Sun and planets was composed mostly of hydrogen (70%) and helium (28%), with only small amounts of all the other elements. The majority of that mass was gravitationally drawn to the center, into what would eventually become our Sun, while most of the rest was distributed in a protoplanetary disk.

As the planets began to grow and take shape, gravity pulled all of the elements into those massive clumps, including hydrogen and helium. Because of the way that density works, the heaviest elements sank to the core while the lightest elements wound up in the top layers of the crust and atmosphere. On the gas giant worlds, there was enough mass to hold onto the hydrogen and helium, but they didn’t stand a chance on Earth.

An illustration of a protoplanetary disk, where planets and planetesimals form first, creating ‘gaps’ in the disk when they do. As soon as the central proto-star gets hot enough, it begins blowing off the lightest elements from the surrounding protoplantary systems. A planet like Jupiter or Saturn has enough gravity to hold onto the lightest elements like hydrogen and helium, but a lower-mass world like Earth does not. (NAOJ)

Helium is lighter than all the other gases composing Earth’s atmosphere, and as a result it rises to the very top of the exosphere: the border between Earth’s most tenuous atoms and the vacuum of space itself. At these great altitudes, a strong kick from either sunlight or a solar wind particle is enough to propel a helium atom past its escape velocity, ejecting it from Earth forever. Although Earth was formed with helium in great abundance, it was largely ejected from our planet long ago. The remaining helium fraction of our atmosphere is a paltry 0.00052%.

Instead, the way nature forms helium on Earth is deep inside the planet, where the heaviest elements reside.

The layers of Earth’s interior are well-defined and understood thanks to seismology and other geophysical observations. Far beneath the crust, heavy elements such as radium, thorium and uranium exist in great abundance. Their radioactive decays generate approximately 50% of the internal heat of the Earth (with the other half coming from gravitational contraction), and it is these decays that build up our underground helium supplies over geologic timescales. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS USER SURACHIT)

While most of what composes Earth is stable — elements like iron, nickel, silicon, oxygen, sulphur, lead and more — there are a few notable exceptions, and they exist in greater abundance the closer to the core we look. Elements like radium, thorium and uranium, while they might compose less than 1% of the Earth, are responsible for approximately half the energy produced by our planet’s interior.

The way they produce it is through the physics encoded by Einstein’s greatest equation: E = mc². These elements are made of atomic nuclei that are so heavy, they’re inherently unstable. Given enough time, they’ll radioactively decay, converting a tiny fraction of their mass into energy when they do via that exact rule, E = mc². The most common pathway for their decay is by the emission of an α particle, made of two protons and two neutrons.

An alpha-decay is a process where a heavier atomic nucleus emits an alpha particle (helium nucleus), resulting in a more stable configuration and releasing energy. When this decay happens deep underground, the alpha particles can recombine with two electrons, building up stores of neutral helium over long enough periods of time. (NUCLEAR PHYSICS LABORATORY, UNIVERSITY OF CYPRUS)

If you know your periodic table, you might recognize that an α particle is identical to a helium nucleus. Even though many of these unstable atoms have half-lives of a billion years or more, the Earth is more than four billion years old. Deep within the Earth, the decay of these heavy elements means that our entire planet is a very slow helium factory.

On the timescale of a human lifespan, the helium produced by radioactive decays is completely negligible. It takes hundreds of millions of years to produce any substantial quantities of helium underground. They build up where veins of these elements have been deposited, and lead to enormous underground reservoirs of helium. Once it’s extracted, we’d have to wait hundreds of millions of years again for these stores to replenish themselves.

A helium extraction facility in Amarillo, TX. Any helium that leaves the plant floats to the top of the atmosphere, where it’s likely to interact with sunlight and wind up in interplanetary space. (JENNIFER TUTOP, BLM NEW MEXICO INTERN)

So, how do we manage this resource? The answer is, “not at all.” Even as our reliance on liquid helium rises, as medical diagnostics involving large-magnitude magnetic fields and requiring liquid helium become more routine, we have no long-term plan for the irreplaceable stores of helium on Earth. The National Helium Reserve is in constant danger of simply being auctioned off, as its current mandate to maintain a vast store of helium expires just two years from now.

The worldwide situation isn’t any better. Only 14 plants mine and refine helium globally, and half of them are in the United States. We are now experiencing our third global helium shortage since the dawn of the 21st century, and the first one since an enormous new store of natural helium was found in Tanzania in 2016. The status quo — where the vast majority of helium used is wasted on one-time frivolities such as balloons and birthday parties — cannot be maintained.

A 2016 study conducted by the scientific research community sought to address the global helium shortage by recommending a series of steps focused on increased production, helium recycling, and worldwide conservation of this natural resource. As of 2019, it is clear that we have not taken substantial steps towards these ends. (AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY, MATERIALS RESEARCH SOCIETY, AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY)

According to a 2016 study conducted by the American Physical Society and the Bureau of Land Management, the price of lab-ready helium rose from $5 per liter in 2010 to more than $16 per liter in 2013, and commercial helium prices have risen concurrent with that. Yet the stories you’re reading aren’t about the scientific and societal impacts, which include:

  • rising prices for MRIs and other medical diagnostics,
  • the increased cost of doing essential scientific research that depends on liquid helium,
  • the issue that we will exhaust our terrestrial helium supply entirely in less than 200 years,
  • and the most egregious fact: the planned privatization of the federal helium supply will only hasten the frivolous wasting of this precious and irreplaceable resource.

Instead, the only story making the news is that Party City, which is known as the best place to buy helium balloons, is closing 5% of its stores because of the helium shortage.

Every time we fill a single balloon with helium, we are damning practically all of the helium atoms present within that balloon to a fate where they escape from Earth’s atmosphere. In mere decades, we are exhausting a natural supply that took billions of years to build up. (HILKEFROMM / PIXABAY)

Every time you fill a single balloon with helium, you’re taking approximately 3 × 10²³ helium atoms, generated over billions of years on Earth, and removing them from the planet. As a species, we are undoing our planet’s entire history of helium production with just a few decades of misuse. You’re making scientific and medical research and applications harder and more expensive to perform. And you’re contributing to and exacerbating a global helium shortage that is already a dire situation.

Travel the Universe with astrophysicist Ethan Siegel. Subscribers will get the newsletter every Saturday. All aboard!

The other options for harvesting it, such as mining other worlds for it or extracting it from the atmosphere, are astronomically expensive by comparison. We get a one-time shot on Earth to extract and preserve the helium beneath our surface. Every atom we lose due to frivolity is another atom we’ll someday be forced to harvest in a much more difficult and resource-intensive fashion. Helium might be abundant in the Universe, but it’s rare and precious on Earth. It’s about time we started acting like it.

Ethan Siegel is the author of Beyond the Galaxy and Treknology. You can pre-order his third book, currently in development: the Encyclopaedia Cosmologica.


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