Running out of helium – another government FAIL

Few people know that the US maintains the world’s largest helium reserve. The National Helium Reserve near Amarillo, TX, currently holds about 1.3B cubic feet of this non-renewable gas which cannot be manufactured. Helium is a byproduct of radioactive decay of terrestrial rock and has been traditionally obtained through the process of natural gas recovery. The National Helium Reserve, owned by the US government, was established as a strategic reserve when lighter-than-airships were an integral component of military air power. While this use is no longer necessary, helium has become a critical component in a variety of high tech equipment and manufacturing processes.

In 1996, congress passed a law to sell off the National Helium Reserve. According to this story, that decision may have disastrous consequences – in other words, another government FAIL.

It is the second-lightest element in the Universe, has the lowest boiling-point of any gas and is commonly used through the world to inflate party balloons.

But helium is also a non-renewable resource and the world’s reserves of the precious gas are about to run out, a shortage that is likely to have far-reaching repercussions.

Scientists have warned that the world’s most commonly used inert gas is being depleted at an astonishing rate because of a law passed in the United States in 1996 which has effectively made helium too cheap to recycle.

The experts warn that the world could run out of helium within 25 to 30 years, potentially spelling disaster for hospitals, whose MRI scanners are cooled by the gas in liquid form, and anti-terrorist authorities who rely on helium for their radiation monitors, as well as the millions of children who love to watch their helium-filled balloons float into the sky.

Liquid helium is critical for cooling infrared detectors, nuclear reactors and the machinery of wind tunnels. The space industry uses it in sensitive satellite equipment and spacecraft, and Nasa uses helium in huge quantities to purge the potentially explosive fuel from its rockets.

In the form of its isotope helium-3, helium is also crucial for research into the next generation of clean, waste-free nuclear reactors powered by nuclear fusion, the nuclear reaction that powers the Sun.

Helium no longer holds the strategic significance it once did and the government is losing money in storage and maintenance costs. However, by selling it at artificially low prices (set by a know nothing congress), the government may put the entire market for this precious resource at risk. This is not a priority, nor should it be. It is but another example of daily government FAIL.

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