“I have this one little saying, when things get too heavy just call me helium, the lightest known gas to man.” –Jimi Hendrix

The second lightest and second most abundant element in the Universe, helium, is incredibly rare on Earth. Practically none of the helium that Earth was formed with still exists, since was too easy for it to escape from our tenuously held atmosphere, unlike the gas giant worlds. But deep underground, in the heavy-element-rich interiors of the Earth, new helium is continuously produced.

Scientists studying the ash from a recent eruption of Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano in Tanzania. Public domain photo.

Scientists studying the ash from a recent eruption of Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano in Tanzania. Public domain photo.

The heaviest unstable elements, like thorium, uranium and radium, are particles that undergo alpha decay on timescales of hundreds of millions to billions of years. They give rise to massive pockets of helium, enabling us to extract it for scientific, medical and more frivolous purposes. But if we waste this cheap, abundant and easy-to-obtain material now, humanity doesn’t have hundreds of millions of years to wait for it to replenish itself.

Helium balloons, where the vast majority of the helium inside will escape the Earth. Image credit: public domain photo from Pixabay user HilkeFromm.

Helium balloons, where the vast majority of the helium inside will escape the Earth. Image credit: public domain photo from Pixabay user HilkeFromm.

Go get the full story on our helium’s origin — and fragility — over on Forbes today!

Comments

  1. #1 Julian Frost
    South Africa
    June 29, 2016

    Interesting that we’re running out of helium. If we were able to create practical fusion reactors, not only would we solve a lot of energy and greenhouse gas problems, we’d get abundant helium as a byproduct.

  2. #2 eric
    June 29, 2016

    @1: well, that depends on what you mean by “abundant.” After some brief googling, I got these numbers:
    1. A kg of uranium produces about 50 MW-days of energy.
    2. The US uses about 29000 TW-hrs per year
    3. The US also uses about 6000000 kg of He per year.
    Assuming a fusion reactor spits out about the same amount of useable energy per reaction as a fission reactor*, I calculate that roughly 10% of all US power would have to be fusion reactors in order to meet the need for helium.

    So, assuming all my SWAGS are actually reasonable, we’re in the ballpark. A few fusion research reactors won’t come anywhere near meeting the need, but if we were to take all our fission reactors and replace them with fusion ones of equivalent megawattage, the He produced would exceed what we use on an annual basis by about double (because the US grid’s energy is about 20% nuclear).

    *Physics-wise it spits out more, but engineering-wise it’s TBD how much we could capture in usable form, so I’m using 1:1 as my SWAG.

  3. #3 Dennis
    Http://pharmchem.uonbi.ac.ke
    June 29, 2016

    Some news such as the depletion of helium are a real cause of concern to me. Currently we can’t operate a donated NMR spectrometer because of the cost of helium and our GCMS is grounded because we have to procure helium from SA. I hope the Tanzania find will ease things. From the foregoing comments we look forward to a huge find of the radioactive heavy elements as well.

  4. #4 See Noevo
    June 29, 2016

    “It takes *hundreds of millions of years to produce*
    any substantial amount of helium, and once we extract it, it will take that long again for these stores to replenish themselves.”

    Maybe, maybe not.
    Probably the same thing was thought of coal formation.
    But I *think* scientists have shown that coal could be formed in a matter of *months.*
    Example:
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/014663808490069X

    And perhaps a similar situation with oil formation. Why, Forbes even weighs in!
    http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/on-energy/2011/09/14/abiotic-oil-a-theory-worth-exploring

  5. #5 See Noevo
    June 29, 2016

    “It takes *hundreds of millions of years to produce* any substantial amount of helium, and once we extract it, it will take that long again for these stores to replenish themselves.”

    Maybe, maybe not.
    Probably the same thing was thought of coal formation.
    But I *think* scientists have shown that coal could be formed in a matter of months.
    Example:
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/014663808490069X

  6. #6 See Noevo
    June 29, 2016

    And perhaps a similar situation with oil formation.
    Forbes even weighs in!
    http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/on-energy/2011/09/14/abiotic-oil-a-theory-worth-exploring

  7. #7 Narad
    June 29, 2016

    Probably the same thing was thought of coal formation.
    But I *think* [sic] scientists have shown that coal could be formed in a matter of months.

    S.N. must have given himself a hemorrhoid trying to figure out a way to screech for attention on this post.

    1. Has nothing to do with helium.
    2. Twenty-four-year old paper, with no further effort.
    3. Did not understand the abstract, much less read the paper.
    4. Skips the part where the imaginary, self-renewing coal supply would be found in nature.

    This boils down to neither more nor less than “helium can’t be a problem because it would spoil lifestyles before the Second Coming.”

    Sh*t, I could have come up with better helium denialism in about 5 minutes. Just disgraceful.

  8. #8 Dean
    June 29, 2016

    “FORBES EBEN WEIGHS IN”

    Well, it’s referenced anyway.

    Abiotic oil? Nothing too kooky For Sn as long as he can use it to argue against anything taking millions of years. What a loser.

  9. #9 See Noevo
    June 29, 2016

    Ethan,

    Perhaps you’d like to say a thing or two about the unusually high levels of helium found in zircon samples, per the work of Dr. Russell Humphreys, et al.

    Are you 100% CERTAIN that Humphreys’ helium results are false,
    just as you’re 100% certain that abiogenesis is true?

    If so, can you explain why in relatively short order?
    Like, maybe, Forbes article-length short?
    (You know how I do hate to read!)
    Because for some laypersons (i.e. not members of the science priesthood), some of the critiques of Humphreys are a bit, well, unwieldy. Example:
    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/helium/zircons.html

  10. #10 Craig Thomas
    June 29, 2016

    What’s he saying?
    That atomic physics is a hoax just like Geology, because … abiotic oil…?

    He might want to watch out for the chemtrails if he keeps carrying on like that.

  11. #11 dean
    United States
    June 29, 2016

    What sn’s parenthetical (prior to the sentence he begins with “Because”) should say:
    “You know how whenever I read anything I don’t agree with I lie about what it says”

    Almost a new low for you, referencing a creationist crank scientiest sn.

  12. #12 Robert Scott
    June 30, 2016

    Thank you Ethan for this informative article. I’m afraid most people are entirely unaware of the critical role that helium plays in medicine and science, and its scarcity. Just yesterday I needed to get an MRI as a result of a concussion (no, I’m not making this up just to make a point. Wish I were!). If we dissipate this resource frivolously such invaluable tools will probably disappear.

  13. #13 eric
    June 30, 2016

    What’s he saying?
    That atomic physics is a hoax just like Geology, because … abiotic oil…?

    I have no idea, but my guess is that he’s implying that Uranium half-lives were about five to seven orders of magnitude shorter after the time of creation (in approximately 4004 BC), and all these Helium deposits were thus formed 1,000,000x quicker than what Ethan and mainstream geologists claim.

    Of course, such a change to the fission half-life of uranium 238 and 235 would make such uranium deposits go critical, not just release helium faster. There wouldn’t be any large deposits of undepleted uranium left after his scenario…and there are. Moreover I’d bet a geologist could tell the difference between a million ton gas pocket that took hundreds of millions of years to form and one that took hundreds of years to form.

    So what his model requires is (a) God fiddles with half-lives for no apparent reason, making Uranium far deadlier to human life just to reduce the isotopic ratio (for some unknown reason) then (b) intervenes to stop the criticality events that would result, then (c) intervenes again to make pocket formation look slow. All the while we must remember that (d) SN’s theology claims he’s not trying to deceive us.

  14. #14 Ragtag Media
    United States
    July 1, 2016

    BS, Walmart has tanks of the stuff for 20 bucks:
    http://www.walmart.com/ip/Balloon-Time-9.5-Helium-Balloon-Tank-Kit-with-30-Balloons/49382071

    I did read where advanced telescopes use helium, but it didn’t say what for?
    Anyone know?

  15. #15 Wow
    July 1, 2016

    “But I *think* [sic] scientists have shown that coal could be formed in a matter of months.”

    Yes, but you think all sorts of lies are fact, see nowt.

    Never once has your “think” or even “recollection” ever turned out to be anything other than self-serving arse covering over bullshit.

  16. #16 Ragtag Media
    United States
    July 2, 2016

    WOWTard, just STFU and answer my question and make your pathetic little life worth a 1/4 pence more.

    What is helium used for in Telescopes?

    Or do you even know you jack OFF bloviater?

  17. #17 MandoZink
    Louisville
    July 2, 2016

    Knowing how much we need helium, and knowing how little we have left, it was satisfying to hear of this new discovery.

    And to celebrate this find I will share this favorite:
    – – – – – – – –
    He is everywhere, in the heavens and Earth.
    He makes the stars shine, yet He cannot be seen.
    He is noble, abundant and fills the universe.
    He can lift you into the sky and bring you gently down.
    He can take many forms.
    He can help heal, He can help kill.
    He can help create, and He can help destroy.

    Praise be unto He
    Helium
    – – – – – – – –

  18. #18 Craig Thomas
    July 3, 2016

    http://lmgtfy.com/?q=what+does+a+telescope+use+helium+for

    Wonderful invention, Google. Surprising how some people have missed it.

  19. #19 Wow
    July 6, 2016

    Teabaggie, just because you are on the internet doesn’t mean you have ANY control or right to control over what I say, you moron.

    For a whinging little prick that keeps bleating on about their “right” to have guns, you certainly demand obedience you abhor to let governments have.

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