If you have been reading my columns for a while you may have noticed that in addition to reviewing the science behind the topic for the week, I am also telling you a story. It’s a cautionary story about resource limitations, about the mismatch between free-market economics and non-renewable resources, and how our government often mishandles scientific issues. This week’s column about the science, the history and the coming shortage of helium is part of that story.
First, let’s cover the science. Helium is an atom which consists of two protons, two neutrons, and two electrons. It is produced in the universe in two ways, from the fusion of two hydrogen atoms in a star and from the decay of naturally radioactive materials like uranium. The second mechanism, radioactive decay, accounts for over 99% of the helium on earth. There is a reason that I am pointing out that helium is an atom. Mother Nature makes atoms. With a few minor exceptions, when humans manufacturing things, we just connect the atoms that Mother Nature has provided, we don’t make new atoms. As I’ll point out later, while free-market economics apply well to things humans can manufacture, they do not apply to atoms.
While the fact that helium is a lightweight material does provide us with nice-looking party balloons, its true value stems from the fact that, no matter how cold we make it, helium does not freeze. Therefore, liquid helium can be cooled down to nearly absolute zero, -459.5 oF. At temperatures approaching absolute zero, atoms stop moving which can lead to some very interesting physical properties. In particular, if you can stop atoms from jostling about their electrical resistance nearly disappears, creating what is known as a superconductor. For example, at room temperature copper wires are good conductors of electricity but some energy is lost as electrons flow through the wire. If you use liquid helium to cool the copper wire to absolute zero, it becomes a superconductor and essentially no energy is lost as electric current flows through it. Helium-derived superconductivity is the “magic” that allows MRI’s to work. Super-cooled environments are also needed to manufacture high-performance computer chips and other micro- and nano-electric devices that are the heart and soul of our digital world.
There is not, and cannot be, a substitute for helium. The next two coldest liquids that Mother Nature will allow, liquid hydrogen and liquid neon, are both about 30 degrees warmer than liquid helium, temperatures too far above absolute zero for to allow for superconductivity. So without helium we would be unable to produce a number of vital medical and electronic components.
Now let move on to the history and the politics. The helium industry got its start in 1903 when it was discovered that natural gas in the vicinity of the Texas panhandle contained up to 2% helium, a concentration high enough to make it relatively easy to recover. The fact that the natural gas in this area contains a significant concentration of helium is a just a fortuitous coincidence since the gas is located in rock strata which contain radioactive elements. This co-location of natural gas reserves and radioactive material turns out to be quite rare. Therefore, since 1903, well over the 90% of the world’s helium supply has come from an area within a 250 mile radius of Amarillo, TX.
The U.S. government became interested in helium almost immediately after the Texas panhandle discovery with the construction of airships for bombing missions in World War I. In 1925, the National Helium Reserve was created in Amarillo, the same year that helium-containing Good Year blimps came into service as floating billboards.
After I first published this column on Sunday, my parents called to tell me that I had been to the National Helium Reserve in 1977. Below is a picture of me, my father, and my sister in front of a little statue of a helium molecule. So you can see that I have been pretty nerdy for quite some time now.
As time passed the U.S. government came to appreciated both the importance and scarcity of helium and took action. In 1960, the Helium Act was passed by Congress which instructed the U.S. Bureau of Mines to conserve helium, an eminently rational strategy in my view.
Now let’s fast-forward to 1996. The political climate in the U.S. has changed. A large percentage of the population seems to have seem to forgotten that large governmental projects, such as the interstate highway system and the postal service, are an essential part of what built our great nation, and have convince themselves that the government should do as little as possible in favor of turning nearly everything over to private industry. As part of this trend, in 1996 Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act which required that the National Helium Reserve in Amarillo be sold off by the year 2015. The intent was that “getting the government out of the helium business” would spur the creation of private helium companies.
While this may sound like a great idea when studying the dynamics of supply and demand in economics class, Mother Nature simply hasn’t gone along. She hasn’t provided us with other natural gas deposits with significant helium content and she hasn’t created other forms of matter which can be cooled to absolute zero without freezing. As a result of allowing the management of a vital, irreplaceable resource like helium to be controlled political whim rather than laws of science, we’ve blown through most of our helium supply and will soon run out.
The results of our poor management of our helium endowment are already quite evident. In addition, to having to suffer the disappointment of no longer being able to get Harry the Dragon balloons at Harris Teeter, the price of helium has increased by 400% since the year 2000. Most credible estimates suggest that the supply of helium will become critically low by the year 2020. This shortage will have a dramatic impact not only on our medical and electronic industries but on the broader economy as well.
This passion play with helium is a drain that we are going to see over and over again in the coming century as we confront inevitable declines in the supply of petroleum, natural gas, phosphorus, and scores of other non-renewal resources on which our modern economy depends. In order to manage these coming shortages in a rational and efficient way, we need to listen to our scientists and to learn how to cooperate. If anyone comes across evidence of either of these two phenomena, please enter a comment using the interface below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.