Saturday, January 29, 2011

Saying goodbye to helium

Looking for more to worry about? Well, how about helium? The world is running out of it.

There's something absurdly ironic about this. Throughout the universe, helium accounts for 24 percent of the mass of the elements. It was created during the first three minutes of the Big Bang, when it still was hot enought to act as a cosmic furnace sythesizing the simplest of atomic nuclei. Our sun is stuffed with the stuff. So are Jupiter and the other gas giants.

But the Earth is too small. Practically all helium free in the atmospher heads up and away, straight into space. That's why it is rare. In fact, the element was discovered in the sun in 1868, before it was found on Earth.

It turns out that helium is found captured in natural gas that has been around radioactive decay. (It's a decay product.) It was mostly produced in the U.S. on the Great Plains.

Now, according to a National Geographic article, the National Research Council says we're running out. The magazine said the U.S. began stockpiling helium in 1960 but later decided to sell it off. When it is gone, most production will be in Russia, Algeria and Qatar. And that could be just 40 years worth.

That's bad news. Helium is crucial for cooling things like MRI scanners, purging rocket engines, and much more.

But worst of all: Can you imagine a kid's birthday party without helium balloons?

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