Aug
31
2010

This kid is sitting on a fortune!: That balloon will put him through college, assuming he doesn't blow it all first on candy and blackjack.
This kid is sitting on a fortune!: That balloon will put him through college, assuming he doesn't blow it all first on candy and blackjack.Courtesy Lars Plougmann
Y’all ever see Mad Max? Or Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior? Or even Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome?

Some of you surely have, and I salute you. For the rest of you, the short description is this: a handsome young Australian actor, who we should just assume is now dead, played a lone wanderer, drifting across a post-apocalyptic wasteland. During the course of his adventures, he meets Tina turner, a really weird looking pilot (twice?!), a grunting, boomerang-throwing feral child, a man named Toe-cutter, and an awesome giant/little person team (sort of like Jordan and Pippen, but more inclined towards stranglings). It’s all very exciting! But the most important part of the Mad Max trilogy is this: he lives in a world without gas. Everybody was so busy blowing each other up that they forgot to be careful with their oil, so by the time Max rolls around, people are freaking out trying to get a few more drops of “the precious juice” for their dune buggies and flame throwers.

And so we come to our news item, and this afternoon’s future-dread focus: helium. If you look at the Mad Max summary and pretend “gas” refers to helium gas instead of gasoline, and if you replace “dune buggies” with “scanning equipment,” and “flame throwers” with “party balloons,” it’s a pretty decent analogy.

See, we’re running out of helium. And when it’s gone, it’s gone forever.

The above statement brings to mind two points (at least for me):
1) No we aren’t. Shut up.; and
2) Even if we are running out of helium, who cares? I can fill up my party balloons with air, or Cheesewhiz, or something.

If you read the article linked to above (or one of the many articles on the subject that came out last week), you’ll find that the answer to point 1 is, yeah, we kinda are, and the answer to point 2 is, it’ll be sad to see floating party balloons go, but they’re the least of our problems. It’s all dune buggies and flame throwers from here on out.

The problem is that helium is non-renewable. We talk about oil being non-renewable, but helium is even more non-renewable. See, helium only comes from fusion reactions (hydrogen atoms slamming together to form heavier helium), or from radioactive decay (heavier elements breaking apart at the atomic level to form lighter helium). Hydrogen fusion only happens in stars (scientists are trying to replicate it as an awesome source of nuclear energy, but don’t hold your breath), so all of the helium on our planet comes from underground, where gases from radioactive decay have become trapped.

We’ve got a nice big planet here, and we’ve got lots of helium, but we’ve just been farting it away, and once helium is released into the atmosphere, it’s gone to us for good. And we’re currently farting away helium at such a tremendous rate that the gas could be all but unavailable within a couple generations. The reason for this is that it’s actually official policy to fart away helium. (More or less.)

A huge portion of the world’s helium has been mined from the American Southwest, and for a long time we were actually pretty good at storing it—we pumped it back underground into a huge system of old mines, pipes and vats near Amarillo, Texas, in a facility called the US National Helium Reserve. We stored the helium because it was strategically useful to the country—it was vital for rocket operation during the Cold War. But in 1996, a law was passed requiring the helium to be sold off, all of it, and by 2015. I’m not totally clear on the reason for the law. I suppose the idea was that the Cold War was over, and by selling the helium, the US National Helium Reserve could be paid for (sort of a Gift of the Magi kinda thing, but whatever.) Congress, however, decided that the price of the sold helium would remain the same until it was all gone, so even as available helium became scarce, it would never be more expensive.

This broke the law of supply and demand, and having this vast, vast supply of helium go on sale for cheap meant that all the helium in the world had to be cheap too. Helium has become so cheap, in fact, that there’s no economic incentive for recycling it—recapturing it after use is so much more expensive than just buying new helium, people have just been letting the used helium drift away, where we’ll never be able to reclaim it. Normally, when a resource becomes more scarce, its price will go up, and people will be better about using it. (For an example, see gas prices and fuel efficiency in cars.) Not so with helium, thanks to that 1996 law. And pretty soon, say some scientists, we’ll be running out of the precious gas.

The “precious” part is there because helium is useful for a lot more than party balloons. (Although they’re ok too.) The properties of helium make it an excellent coolant for medical scanning equipment, and the sort of detectors used in super colliders. It’s also used in telescopes, diving equipment, rockets (NASA is a huge user—and waster—of helium), fusion research, and airships. (And don’t laugh about that last one—as the price of fuel goes up, the prospect of eventually moving cargo with lighter-than-air aircraft, like blimps and zeppelins, is becoming more likely. And hydrogen is a little bit too explodey to be a great alternative lifting gas.)

Helium is so desired, and is being wasted at such a rapid rate, claims Robert Richardson (a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, whose research was on helium), that a single helium-filled party balloon ought to cost about $100.

That’s right: $100. It’s that, or we keep going until there’s no helium left. And then... it’s Thunderdome. You know the rules—there are none.

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