Earth is Running Out of Helium.
Bill O’Reilly is one of the Helium Brains this post will discuss later. (context)
Children across America may be in complete despair soon. Kids born today will never know the pleasures of helium. By the time they reach their 4th birthdays, those children will be wondering what it was that kept those old-timey balloons aloft in the pictures they see of the days of yore. They will never hear the voice of one of their peers altered for a few moments by a breath of helium, and they will never themselves know the joy of talking that way until their mothers, in exasperation, say, “Stop inhaling from balloons before your voice freezes that way! It happened to a kid in Australia, so it could happen to you!”
This situation is so serious that both chambers of Congress have held hearings on the issue. There is actual bipartisan concern about our dwindling helium supply. Senate bill 2374, the Helium Stewardship Act of 2012, has garnered considerable support. Opening the July 20, 2012, House hearing, Rep. Rush Holt (D. – NJ), the Ranking Member on the House Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee, said, “We may be heading for a crisis … if we don’t face up to this issue.”
Helium-Free Macy’s Parade Float (source)
He’s right. Without helium, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will be just a bunch of trucks pretending to be floats and marching bands. There will be nothing spectacular to see. Television coverage will cease and people will hit the malls for Black Thursday, which, without the parade, will become the norm.
Helium is so scarce that helium balloons are truly a scourge to necessary medical procedures like MRIs, which require the element to operate. Cornell University Professor and Nobel physics prize winner, Robert Richardson, says that party balloons would sell for $119 each to reflect a more accurate value of this dwindling resource.
As silly as it may seem, terrestrial helium depletion is no joke.
Helium is essential for creating neutron beams. Weather balloons use it
to reach the stratosphere. It is used to cool nuclear reactors and to purge rocket fuel in space-bound vehicles.
Without it, superconducting magnets won’t work, so devices as common as the local hospital’s MRI to the Large Hadron Collider would be inoperable. Without helium, there will be no semi-conductors or microchips
. And it’s absolutely indispensable for cryogenics
. For the love of all that is immortal, we must save our helium!
Helium in mined, just like other natural gas, from pockets in the earth’s crust where it is trapped. Its sale is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which sells it to private refineries for considerably less than its rarity and rapid depletion would indicate is a fair price.
The American Helium Hoard
The Amarillo Helium Stockpile looks like someone’s dermal condition in this satellite photo. (source)
There is a place that stockpiles helium. Where else do you think the canisters of the stuff come from? Of course they come from the world’s largest Helium Reserve, outside of Amarillo, Texas, where over 30% of the world’s helium is extracted from natural gas wells. However, as wild and free as the helium is allowed to roam on the reserve, supplies there are expected to be depleted by 2016. By 2042, the earth’s supply of helium may go the way of the dodo. Helium is an endangered species … er … element.
We all know and love helium as the gas that inflates balloons. But scientists and engineers use helium as a coolant and in other complicated ways we mere mortals wouldn’t understand. It seems though, that those party balloons have been wasting this precious resource.
“Helium is non-renewable and irreplaceable. Its properties are unique and unlike hydrocarbon fuels (natural gas or oil), there are no biosynthetic ways to make an alternative to helium. All should make better efforts to recycle it,” says Lee Sobotka, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and physics in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. He should know. He’s a scientist.
We can’t make helium? What kind of scientific incompetence is this?
Even though it is the second-most common element in the universe, helium is too light to be retained under the dome of earth’s atmosphere. Terrestrial helium only occurs naturally when the super heavy elements like uranium decay. We all know how slow that process is. We know, for example, that Chernobyl is going to be uninhabitable forever because of the decaying uranium allowed to roam in the wild there. Sure, Chernobyl is putting out a few helium atoms here and there, but that’s over in Russia or somewhere. It’s not here in America, where our reserves are running a bit thin.
What to do?
According to a paper published in the journal Nature, The most expedient way is to remove it from the brains of airheads, where helium collects in the crevices between layers of gray matter. We would provide a link to the exact article, but Nature is behind a horrendously expensive paywall, so we’ll summarize the article for you here.
Helium’s the one up top on the right.
You might remember from science class, when you had to memorize parts of the Periodic Table of Elements, that helium was the second element. It was the one that had only two protons and two electrons circling its nucleus. It’s the lightest element, and scientists have now revealed that, in a revolutionary approach to extracting terrestrial helium, they will begin farming airheads in order to figure out how to retrieve the helium that collects in their brains.
It’s the only way.
Helium Farms: The Permanent Wave of the Future?
Dr. Rutherford Becquerel, a nuclear chemist with the Curie College of Physical Science at Fermi University in Cern, Switzerland, will take a sabbatical to head up the Texas farming operation, which is expected to lure airheads from all over America and possibly even the world.
At a press conference last week, he explained that helium is what makes airheads so ditzy. Extracting the helium from the brains of there airheads will help replace some of the natural helium lost because of wasteful scientists who have performed their experiments so carelessly, and because of wasteful engineers who have used it so recklessly and relentlessly. Not to mention all those balloons at football games and birthday parties.
“When we use what has been made over the approximate 4.5 billion of years the Earth has been around, we will run out,” Sobotka said, joining Becquerel at the podium last week. “We cannot get too significant quantities of helium from the sun — which can be viewed as a helium factory 93 million miles away — nor will we ever produce helium in anywhere near the quantities we need from Earth-bound factories. Helium could eventually be produced directly in nuclear fusion reactors and is produced indirectly in nuclear fission reactors, but the quantities produced by such sources are dwarfed by our needs.”
The crowd got wild. Wild, I tell you.
“It is not a complicated procedure to remove the helium,” Becquerel assured the gathered journalists. “We either pierce the eardrum, or go through the nostril with a long syringe, and suck the helium out of the brains of the airheads.”
There was a protest by several hundred parents, whose children are blonde and who suspect that their children will be future airheads.
“There is no need to be alarmed or concerned at all,” Becquerel assured the protesters. Pediatric neurophysicist Marie-Pierre Soddy, recently appointed medical director of the project, agreed. “Helium extraction actually allows the brain to grow, to move into areas formerly inhabited by the helium. It actually cures the condition of most airheads,” she said. Her groundbreaking paper on the subject has been published in PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and featured in the journal Neurology. Paywalls are firmly in place for both, so once again, readers will just have to have faith in the trustworthiness of this report.
It has been scientifically proven that natural blondes are no more prone to ditzy brains than the rest of the population. The hair-bleaching process, on the other hand, may create an inter-cranial helium buildup of unacceptable proportions. Soddy’s team continues to study this method as a possible way to create more helium to power their helium-powered experiments. The extraction of the helium gas from the brains of these helium-afflicted people will actually make them smarter and more sensible. A fortuitous situation, indeed!
NOAA’s Graphic of Our Atmosphere
It would cost too much to try to get helium out of the air, and recycling the helium set free by all those balloons is out of the question since they fly too high much too fast to be able to catch them with any degree of reliability. The helium quickly rises to to upper reaches of the stratosphere, punches through the mesosphere, rockets through the thermosphere, and wafts on out into exospheric space from there. It’s too light to hang around with the other elements, and it doesn’t bond to them so nothing holds it in place. (Hydrogen, on the other hand, bonds easily to earth-bound elements.)
Helium from the Exosphere?
The sun emits incredible amounts of helium every day. When consulted about Becquerel’s plan for helium husbandry, Dr. Ian Crawford, of Birkbeck College at the University of London, carefully had no committal comment as to its efficacy. However, he graciously offered what could be the next step to acquiring helium:
Lunar Helium Mine
“There are about 22 grams of helium in every cubic metre of lunar soil. Once American IQs have been raised beyond the point of cost-effective helium reclamation, the moon is our next treasure trove for helium.”
In addition to the farm Becquerel and Soddy will operate in the Texas panhandle, helium farms will be started in Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma. Exploratory missions to Australia and England are in the works. Because of Chernobyl, Russia has the world’s largest reserves of raw, wild, free-range helium, but exploratory missions have had to deal with radiation issues, and have not yet established a way to isolate the helium without taking off their lead-lined suits.
Nobel Prize to be awarded to Soddy and Becquerel
Sobotka believes that Russia will be the world’s major source of helium in 30 years, if any remains on the planet. despite being the second most abundant element in the universe, we humans had squandered our supply in a macabre foreshadowing of what will also become of other non-renewable resources.
Soddy and Becquerel, whom their peers are sure have sewn up the Nobel Prize in medicine, physics and chemistry, also believe that with the mining of helium from American airheads, our national IQ will increase exponentially and we might even stop voting Republican.
“Miracles happen,” Dr. Soddy said softly, hopefully.