Ask a Scientist, Science & Technology

Helium is an endangered element

The world is running out of helium. This may come as a shock, as helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, but it is also a non-renewable resource that is rapidly being depleted.

Helium is a light inert gas that belongs to a group of elements known as the noble gases.  The result of radioactive decay of other elements over millions of years, helium is found in gas pockets beneath the ground. While some continues to trickle to the surface and escape, most of it is extracted for human use. Due to its light mass, helium does not stay in the atmosphere, but quickly escapes the Earth’s surface and travels into outer space. 

People often associate helium with balloons or know it as the gas that makes your voice sound funny. However, it has a wide variety of applications, including scuba diving tanks and space flight operations. Its inert, or unreactive, properties allow it to be used in the welding and manufacturing of semiconductors. When liquefied, it can also be used as a cooling agent for superconducting magnets in MRI scanners and important pieces of chemistry lab equipment, which only work when bathed in liquid helium.

A crucial piece of equipment in chemistry labs is the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (NMR) machine, a piece of equipment that is used to observe local magnetic fields around atomic nuclei. Dr. Tara Sprules, a manager of the Quebec/Eastern Canada High Field NMR facility (QANUC) in the McGill Chemistry Department, uses liquid helium to run the machines. The lab has been affected by helium scarcity, forcing Sprules to search for financial assistance to purchase equipment that can recycle helium. Helium supply is particularly unstable because it relies on other industries, and is often extracted as a byproduct of natural gas and petroleum exploration.

 “If natural gas and petroleum industries get cut down, […] that’s a potential [helium] source that we don’t have anymore,” Sprules said in an interview with The McGill Tribune.

There are not many sustainable alternatives to helium to begin with, and in many applications, there are no sufficient replacements at all.

“For the NMR and MRI applications, there aren’t any alternatives because the superconducting magnets have to be at four [Kelvin],” Sprules said. “The material used to do superconducting has to be that temperature [….] There is nothing else that can get that cold, and there isn’t any semiconducting material that has the appropriate conductance at a higher temperature.”

Sprules pointed out that most people do not directly use helium in their everyday lives, so placing the onus on individuals rather than industry to conserve helium will not have much effect. 

“You may want to stop using helium-filled birthday balloons or devices containing semiconductors, but then it becomes a larger question as to what extent you are willing to go,” Sprules said. “The more practical solution is that wherever there are places where helium can be recycled, it should [be].”

Sprules believes that recycling helium can be very efficient in addressing the helium shortage.

“We are working on purchasing [helium-recycling] equipment,” Sprules said. “If we were to have [it], […] we would be able to recycle 90 per cent of the helium we use. Any place that recycling can happen, it’s a very good solution.” 

Experts are conflicted about how long it will take for helium to run out. Some believe that we will run out in 25 to 35 years, while others think that helium resources will last another 200 to 300 years. Regardless of when we will run out, most experts agree that we need to start thinking about helium conservation.

“There are several sites in Saskatchewan where they are starting to extract helium,” Sprules said. “It all depends on how much gets recycled and how successful new exploration sites are.” 

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