Sunday, 19 September 2010

Helium: Is it finite?

Helium is formed on Earth as rocks steadily decay and nearly all of our reserves have been formed as a by-product of the extraction of natural gas. 

The only way to obtain it will be to capture it from the decay of tritium — a radioactive hydrogen isotope, which the US stopped making in 1988.

This means that the Earth's resources of helium are being depleted at an astonishing rate because it is too cheap to recycle. Thus, Earth's helium reserves will run out by 2030, a leading expert has claimed. 

According to Nobel laureate Prof. Robert Richardson of Cornell University, the US supplies 80 per cent of the helium used in the world at a very cheap rate and these supplies will run out in 25 to 30 years' time. And, once the helium reserves are gone, there will be no way of replacing it, the Professor of physics said. 

"There is no chemical means to make helium. The supplies we have on Earth come from radioactive alpha decay in rocks. Right now it's not commercially viable to recover helium from the air so we've to rely on extracting from rocks. 

"But if we do run out altogether, we will have to recover helium from the air and it will cost 10,000 times what it does today," Prof Richardson told the 'New Scientist'. 

A US law states that the biggest store of helium in the world — in a disused airfield in Texas — must be sold off by 2015 and is being sold at far too cheap a price. 

 So what should the US do? "Get out of the business and let the free market prevail. The consequence will be a rise in prices. Party balloons will be US dollars 100 each but we'll have to live with that. We will have to live with those prices eventually anyway," he said.

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