Terra Sigillata

Getting a Rise Out of Helium

Sci/Med blogging is an interesting pastime. You can spend a tremendous amount of time writing a post and get two comments and 30 total viewers, or you can write a brief post about your daughter asking where helium comes from and get many more commenters and nearly a thousand viewers.

Clearly, the five-year-old is a better source for blog content. Q.E.D.

And, wow, what we have learned from our readers in response: one frequent Australian commenter, Chris Noble, confirmed the abundance of helium in Amarillo by noting their next shipment was indeed coming from Texas. Casey pointed us to an NPR story on the current helium shortage and Gretchen wistfully told us to stop filling our balloons so she could complete her experiments. Amarillo native, Biggs, noted the 50-foot high helium molecule in town – isn’t the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo too? (Those Amarillians seem to be enthusiastic about memorializing big things.).

Dave S. shared the tidbit that helium was detected on the Sun before it was found on Earth and Dr William Dyer told us that helium is a non-renewable resource because, while it is generated from radioactive alpha decay, the velocity of the particles is greater than the Earth’s escape velocity.

Then, while in a colleague’s office the other day, I spotted the 8 October issue of Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN) and one of the featured articles entitled, Where’s the Helium? (True to the style of the American Chemical Society, the article is still behind a firewall – they must’ve gotten wind of the fact that a fans of a five-year-old are interested in the topic.). The article is fascinating; the link to the issue’s ToC is here – the helium story may become freely accessible if you are reading this in 2008.

I think that many of us know that helium is required to cool magnets required for research NMRs and clinical magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) instruments. What Mark Resich of ACS also tells us is that ExxonMobil is shutting down its Shute Creek helium plant in SW Wyoming for maintenance during this month and “a ripple will spread across the global helium supply.”

The warm fall also seems to be having an impact since higher natural gas demand increases industrial yield of helium; more helium is fractionated from natural gas during the Northern hemisphere’s winter.

The article also tells us that Algeria and Qatar are about to become major players in the helium market.

Just don’t tell our current US president.

Addendum: Fellow ScienceBlogger and former Kansan, Josh Rosenau, reminds us of his post from last December on the helium pipeline between Bushton, KS, and Amarillo, TX. While Amarillo is a major shipper of helium, Josh tells us that Kansas is the world’s leading producer.


  1. #1 Ahcuah
    October 22, 2007

    Amarillo native, Biggs, noted the 50-foot high helium molecule in town . . .

    Um, since Helium is a noble gas, it doesn’t form molecules.

    (Yes, some of the heavier noble gases can be forced into a molecule, but not, as far as I know, Helium.)

  2. #2 Abel Pharmboy
    October 23, 2007

    Ahcuah, the monument, which is described by a very informative website, (The Helium Time Columns Monument) represents the molecular structure of helium:

    Suspended from the intersection are four spheres within two elliptical rings, which represent the molecular structure of helium – two neutrons and two protons orbited by two electrons.

  3. #3 Dave S.
    October 23, 2007

    People who work on the kinetics of gases often call noble gases, as any other gas particle, ‘molecules’, whether or not they occur as a stable cluster of more than one atom. The strict rule of molecules being made of at least 2 atoms is not so strict there. Rules, even strict ones, are made to be broken. A geologist for instance would be unlikely to call a quartz crytal a ‘molecule’, even though strictly speaking you could put forth that case.

    And He can (briefly) form a dimeric molecule, but only under extreme conditions involving lasers and plasmas and ultra-low temperatures.

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