Helium, and why it’s so Important
Many may recognize helium from the popular party prop, helium filled balloons, which if inhaled increases the pitch of your voice and makes for a fun time. Some may also recognize helium from the speculation in the news that we are going to run out. However, the second element on the periodic table is much more than a party prop and its properties and uses make it a very interesting and important atom. Helium is the second most abundant element in the Universe, however, it is comparatively rare on Earth. Helium plays a vital role here on Earth, its properties make it extremely useful in space exploration and quantum mechanics
Helium is the only element on the planet that is completely nonrenewable. That is because, on Earth, helium is generated deep underground. It is the product of the natural radioactive decay of elements such as uranium and thorium. When elements decay, they split from a heavy atom into two smaller, lighter atoms. These atoms are not often equal in size and oftentimes the radioactive decay causes one of the smaller atoms to be helium. Those helium atoms then get swept up through the Earth's crust getting trapped in pockets of natural gas, where they can then be extracted. This process takes many millennia to complete.
Helium is lightweight, however, unlike its predecessor hydrogen, it does not readily combine with other elements as it is stable on its own. This means that once helium reaches Earth's surface it can easily escape Earth's gravitational pull, getting swept away by solar wind once it reaches the atmosphere, making it the only element on Earth's surface that physically disappears from the planet. Helium is in high demand today due to its incredibly low boiling point, it will remain a liquid down to absolute zero. It is also impossible to ever get helium to temperatures cold enough to freeze which is vital for the systems it is a part of.
Due to its properties, it becomes the best choice for supercooling magnets which are used in MRI machines; it is also used for cooling quantum computers, detecting leaks in pressurized vessels.
Now for the question of are we running out of helium. On an international scale, we are running low on the helium stockpile. In the 1920s shortly after helium was discovered, the US began stockpiling, specifically the US government as no private companies were allowed to collect helium. By the 1960s private companies were allowed to begin collecting helium and the monopoly was lifted. By 1996 the US government began to sell their stockpile of 70 years as it became so readily available that there was no gain in continuing to stockpile the element. Despite common misconception, we are not running out of helium, rather we are depleting our helium reserves. Helium is easily collected today which means that we don't need to stockpile, due to the improved methods of recycling and recapturing used helium rather than letting it dissipate in the atmosphere. So there you have it, helium and why it's so important.
Brumfiel, G. (2019, November 8). The World Is Constantly Running Out Of Helium. Here's Why It Matters. NPR. Retrieved from. https://www.npr.org/2019/11/01/775554343/the-world-is-constantly-running-out-of-helium-heres-why-it-matters.
Westreich, S. (2019, December 23). Science Monday: Are We Really Running Out of Helium? Science Monday. Retrieved from. https://medium.com/a-microbiome-scientist-at-large/science-monday-are-we-really-running-out-of-helium-c5365852cbd3.