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Without helium, the party’s over

Editorial cartoon by Jason D. Cox

Editorial cartoon by Jason D. Cox

Scientists tell us that, at the current rate of consumption, a natural resource could completely disappear from this planet as soon as the year 2042.

That may sound far enough into the future that the average college student need not be bothered, but it could have a significant impact on the lives of everyone on the planet.

To put it simply, will you want helium balloons at your birthday party when you turn 64 years old?

A study recently released says that helium, the second most abundant element in the known universe, is being used on Earth faster than it can be replaced.

For many industries around the world—including but not limited to party suppliers—this spells bad news.

Liquid helium is important to processes used in space exploration, electronics manufacturing, nuclear energy and medical imaging.

NASA uses more than millions of cubic feet of helium every year to propel and cool its space crafts. It also makes no effort to recycle or recapture any of the helium it uses.

Liquid helium is used to cool the super-conducting coil in nuclear magnetic resonance and magnetic resonance imaging equipment.

This equipment creates a very large magnetic field allowing NMR and MRI technologists to conduct their research and diagnostics.

Nuclear magnetic resonance and magnetic resonance imaging are two of the largest users of helium today, according to University of Alberta NMR technologist Deryck Webb.

These medical and technological applications are integral to the advancement of the human race, but this is yet another crisis that could be solved through meticulous consumption.

If the captains of industry could look at the data and face the reality that they will soon put themselves out of business, it seems likely the regulations on how helium is spent would become slightly more conservative.

Even though helium is vastly abundant in the universe, on Earth it is relatively rare at 0.00052 percent by volume in the atmosphere. So, while there is a lot of helium out there in the icy blackness of space, there is not a lot of helium down here.

Because helium is trapped in the subsurface under conditions that also trap natural gas, the greatest natural concentrations of helium on the planet are found in natural gas, from which most commercial helium is extracted.

A part of the problem is that we do not have the technological means to extract from anywhere other than our own planet.

If we were to seek out a new source of helium, we would have to reach to the stars.

Helium is resultant of the nuclear fusion of hydrogen that occurs in stars. This means stars would be our most practical resource for new helium.

In that case, perhaps helium harsh restrictions should be placed on helium being used for any industry that does not contribute to the likelihood of humanity getting more helium.

Not to be a party pooper, but there is a time and a place for celebration, and irresponsible consumption of our planet’s resources is not a thing to be commemorated.

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