Shortage of Helium Means What for Science?

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There is a global helium shortage and not enough people know about it. Recently, Party City has announced that they are closing 40 stores with partial cause from the helium crisis. This announcement was a relief for scientists, hoping that the public and government would start paying closer attention to the issue at hand.

Scientist Mark Elsesser via NBC gave a little run down to help people understand:

“Helium is used in MRIs, it’s used in nuclear magnetic resonance, and the semiconductor industry uses a lot of helium. Because of a helium shortage, some important experiments are being forced to shut down. The development of some drugs is being impacted. We’re losing time in research efforts.”

Scientists have been issuing warnings for years about the earth’s diminishing helium supply, but it is only now getting mainstream exposure. This year, the American Physical Society stated that addressing the helium crisis is one of their top priorities.

Liquid helium is also the coldest substance in the world, plummeting to minus 450 degrees Fahrenheit when expanded- almost as cold as outer space. A bath of liquid helium can prevent irreparable damage in special types of scientific research equipment, like superconducting magnets that are used for experiments related to the development of pharmaceutical drugs.

Although helium is the second most prevalent element in the universe, most of it dissipates into the earth’s atmosphere. The fields of helium that have been located around the world are difficult to trap and store. Because it is so light, it easily escapes. The world’s only two reliable sources of helium left are Qatar and Algeria.

The short supply has caused helium prices to skyrocket from $5 per liter a decade ago to the current price of $100 a liter.

To remain optimistic, there are reports of a new helium field in Tanzania and Russia is hoping to become a supplier of helium by 2021.