You may have clicked past some headlines in recent weeks regarding a huge discovery of helium in Tanzania. The phrase conjures Far Side images of balloon animals in the wild, but it's actually a very big deal for science, as Trace Dominguez reports in today's oddly squeaky DNews dispatch.
While we tend associate helium with birthday parties and YouTube goofiness, the element is actually an extremely valuable commodity in dozens of different industries. As a noble gas, it's inert and stable but also has a number of useful properties when cooled into a liquid.
Actually, the range of uses for helium is pretty wild: Major league physicists use it with their superconducting magnets in the Large Hadron Collider. Scuba divers mix it with oxygen to stabilize air tanks. Arc welders need it as a sort of gaseous safety blanket. It's also a critical component for both MRI scanners and supermarket bar code scanners.
Unfortunately, despite being the second most abundant element in the universe, helium is kind of hard to find on our planet. Because the gas is lighter than air down here in the troposphere, it floats up into the stratosphere and gets stripped off into space by the sun.
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So to effectively mine the stuff, we need to go underground and extract helium from the earth's crust, just as we do oil or natural gas. In fact, helium makes up about seven percent of your typical natural gas deposit. Just as we can have worrisome oil and natural gas shortages, we can have problematic helium shortages.
That's been the case in the last several years, as known helium reserves have been gradually depleted. Skyrocketing prices have forced the suspension of hundreds of research projects and Japan even convinced Disneyland Tokyo to stop selling Mickey Mouse balloons for a while. Seriously. Disney typically does not deign to honor the requests of mere nation-states, so you know things are getting serious.
That's why the news out of Tanzania was such a big deal. Scientists employed an innovative new method of seismic imaging and geochemical sampling to identify the massive deposit, which should last us for a few decades at least. Whew.
-- Glenn McDonald
Scientific American: Strange But True: Superfluid Helium Can Climb Walls
NBC News: 8 Surprising Hi-Tech Uses For Helium
TIME: There's A Helium Shortage On - And It's Affecting More Than Just Balloons