No more squeaky voices: We're running out of helium

Its scarcity could impact scientific research as well as the high-tech industry.

Photo by Luca Upper on Unsplash
  • Although it's commonly used to make balloons float, helium is actually a precious, non-renewable resource.
  • Without helium, a great deal of scientific research can not be conducted, and technology like MRI machines won't work.
  • The demand for helium is enormous and growing; there is no way to create artificial helium economically and no way for the Earth's helium stores to sustain the demand.

Helium is the second-most common element in the universe, accounting for 23 percent of all normal matter. But despite being extremely common throughout the universe, it is exceedingly rare on Earth. For every million particles of air in our atmosphere, only about 5.2 of those are helium.

Whenever helium balloons are released at a child's birthday party, that helium escapes into the upper atmosphere. Helium is an exceptionally light element, so it rises to the very top of the atmosphere, where it's the least dense. One might think that a light gas like helium would be stuck here, pushed up by the denser air beneath it and pushed down by Earth's gravity. But helium molecules this high up in the atmosphere can be easily exposed to the solar wind — streams of high-energy particles from our sun — which irrevocably blows the helium away into space.

This is the fate of the 6.2 billion cubic feet of helium that we use in a year. Simply put, helium is a finite resource on Earth, and running out of it means giving up a lot more than balloons and squeaky voices.

What's so special about helium?

Helium has some unique characteristics that make it a critical substance to many researchers and scientists. Most importantly, no other element can get as cold as helium without freezing. In fact, helium doesn't freeze at all. Once helium is chilled to about 4 Kelvin, it becomes a liquid. The Kelvin scale is an absolute measure of temperature based on the degree of movement in molecules, so 0 Kelvin is as cold as physically possible. For some perspective on how cold 4 Kelvin is, it works out to be –452.47 Fahrenheit — or, –269.15 Celsius.

This matters because of another discovery scientists made: certain materials lose all electrical resistances when sufficiently cooled. These are called superconductors, and they're used in a wide variety of high-tech devices — particle accelerators, certain nuclear reactors, mass spectrometers, and MRI machines. Without liquid helium, these technologies are not possible, and there is no viable substitute substance.

Where are we getting helium from in the first place?

The helium that we find on Earth is actually the product of radioactive decay. Radioactive minerals made of uranium and thorium emit alpha particles, which are particles composed of two protons and two neutrons. These alpha particles quickly attract electrons, turning into them into helium atoms. In this way, an estimated 3,000 tons of helium are generated per year. This, however, barely makes a dent in our annual consumption. That 6.2 billion cubic feet of helium we consume in year mentioned above converts to about 32,000 tons (assuming the cubic feet are measured at 70°F and under Earth's normal atmosphere). The vast majority of helium reserves that we rely on to support this habit are the product of millions of years of gradual accumulation.

Not all of the helium generated in the Earth is readily accessible either, and even when it is easy to access, it's often not economically feasible to collect. After helium is created by radioactive elements deep underground, the gas finds its way to the same deposits as natural gas. As a result, the majority of helium is collected by natural gas companies as an ancillary benefit. Unfortunately, the limits of current technology mean that its only worth gas companies' time to collect helium if there is a greater than 0.3 percent concentration. Consequently, a fairly significant amount of helium is simply vented away.

A map of major gas fields in the U.S. showing those that contain an economically viable concentration of helium and those that do not. Image source: American Physical Society, Materials Research Society, American Chemical Society

If helium is so vital, why is it so cheap?

Back when blimps and other helium-based airships seemed like they would be vital to national defense, the U.S. government collected as much helium as it could. This helium was stored in Amarilla, Texas, in the Federal Helium Reserve (FHR). Today, about 40 percent of the nation's helium is supplied by the FHR. However, the U.S. government passed laws mandating that the Federal Helium Reserve sell off its reserves and close in 2021, in an effort to recoup debts the reserve had incurred and to privatize the market.

As a result, helium prices have remained fairly low — low enough that we don't feel too bad about letting this precious stuff go to waste in balloons for birthday parties.

Despite this, however, helium isn't actually all that cheap, especially not for researchers who rely on it to conduct experiments. According to a 2016 report, helium prices increased by 250 percent in the five years prior. In fact, some researchers have had to spend more than a quarter of their grant funds on purchasing liquid helium.

A helium shortage won't just hurt researchers; the lack of helium for use in high-tech applications will make life more difficult for everybody. In an interview with USA Today, Northwestern physics professor William Halperin said, "The shortage of helium which is present now — and which we can anticipate will increase — will affect, broadly, everybody."

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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