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Helium: up, up and away

Readinch

balloons

While the global spotlight has focused lately on rare-earth metals – given the supply dispute pitting the United States, Japan and the European Union against China, the main exporter – some western scientists are worried about a shortage of another element: helium.

Sharing the periodic table with the 17 rare earths and 100 other chemical elements, helium is the second-lightest and the second-most-abundant element in the observable universe, surpassed only by hydrogen.

If it’s so plentiful across our galaxy, then, what’s the problem? Like so many other resources important to humanity, scientists say, helium on Earth (which was not so plentiful in the first place) is running out.  Some experts warn that the planet’s supply could be gone within 30 years, while others give us till the end of the century.

Classified as a noble gas, helium (chemical symbol: He) is colourless, odourless, tasteless, non-toxic, monatomic and inert – and therefore safe to handle.  It is also non-renewable. And, as the UK newspaper The Independent reported in 2010, a shortage “is likely to have far-reaching repercussions”, given helium’s critical role in such diverse fields as space and defence, nuclear fusion, astronomy, geology, medicine and deep-sea diving. Oh, and in party balloons, too.

The helium shortage was back in the news this month after one scientist in Britain complained that one of his experiments – designed to probe the structure of matter – had to be cancelled for lack of helium. Oleg Kirichek, a research-team leader at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory’s renowned ISIS neutron beam facility, told The Observer:

“It costs £30,000 [US$47,500] a day to operate our neutron beams, but for three days we had no helium to run our experiments on those beams. In other words, we wasted £90,000 [US$142,500] because we couldn’t get any helium. Yet we put the stuff into party balloons and let them float off into the upper atmosphere, or we use it to make our voices go squeaky for a laugh. It is very, very stupid. It makes me really angry.”

Two years ago, Robert Richardson, a winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for physics for work on the helium-3 isotope at low temperatures, said in New Scientist that balloons should cost around US$100 each, based on the available supply of helium and the lack of incentive for recycling it. (For $100, enough helium to float perhaps 200 balloons could be bought.) “We are squandering an irreplaceable resource,” Richardson noted – one that has taken the planet 4.7 billion years to build up.

More recently, prices – like balloons – have soared. But while the toys get a lot of attention, the origins of the helium crisis are more earth-bound, and serious, than an upsurge in parties. Growing worldwide demand and mismanagement of the resource play a far bigger role, according to Chemistry World.

Helium on Earth is by-product of the petrochemical industry; it rises to the surface when pockets of the gas are disturbed during drilling. Since 1925, it has been a strategic resource in the United States, stored at the Federal Helium Reserve near Amarillo, Texas. The helium kept there accounts for nearly half of the country’s supply and more than a third of the world’s, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

“The US created a vast stockpile of billions of litres of helium in the 1920s and kept it until the late 1990s, when it decided to sell it off,” Jonathan Flint, chief executive of Oxford Instruments – which uses helium to cool scanners and other devices – said in The Observer.  Under the Helium Privatization Act of 1996, the US Congress called on reserve officials to sell most of their supply by 2015.

“Helium was cheap and we learned to be wasteful with it,” according to Kirichek. “Now the stockpile is used up, prices are rising and we are realising how stupid we have been.”

With uncertain supplies, the use of helium-dependent devices in science and medicine is expected to become increasingly problematic. As David Ward of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy put it: “I will not be happy if I cannot have a medical scan in my 70s because we wasted helium on party balloons while I was in my 30s.”

Balloons image by D Sharon Pruitt

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