Let’s ignore dark matter – we don’t know what it is anyway. Let’s hear it for Helium! It’s the second most abundant element in THE Universe. So YAY! PARTY ON!, and etceteras. Helium is 24% of the mass of all elements. Most helium in the universe is helium-4 resulting not from the Big Bang but the nuclear fusion of hydrogen in stars – not unlike our own – also creates large amounts of new helium. Your voice would sound very funny on the surface of The Sun. Post a video. I dare you.
Hydrogen is the only element lighter than helium and its increased buoyancy made hydrogen an economical choice for airships. In hindsight, this was not a good idea.
The use of helium in more recent, smiley airships is well known. Hurrah!
Worldwide Aeros Corp is also doing some good work. The attraction of these craft is that they require much less fuel to take off and stay airborne. Their disadvantage is that their necessarily less streamlined shape limits their speed.
Greendiary presents us with some less-grounded visions of future airship transport but we’ll stop it there.
One new use for helium is in hard drives. Solid state memories may one day make hard drives obsolete but, until then, helium-sealed hard drives have advantages over conventional ones.
The lower density of helium lets the disk spin with less turbulence. Less turbulence means less vibration and less noise. Lower turbulence means less friction which means less heat which means less cooling which means lower power consumption. Nice.
Regardless, the currently most important use of Helium is to cool certain metals to the extremely low temperatures required for superconductivity. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN requires 96 metric tons of liquid helium to maintain its temperature at 1.9°K.
The most vital example is the superconducting magnets used for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A typical MRI scanner uses 1,700 litres of liquid helium, which needs to be topped up periodically. You may need one of these one day.
Helium is useful.
On our beloved planet, Helium is only 5.2 parts per million in the atmosphere. Helium-4 nucleii formed by the natural radioactive decay of mainly thorium and uranium are trapped with natural gas in concentrations of up to 7% by volume and extracted commercially by a process called fractional distillation. Like oil and gas, Helium is a finite resource and is one of the few elements with escape velocity, meaning that once released into the atmosphere, it escapes into space. Never knew that. It cannot be artificially synthesised.
A company called Cyrogenic has developed a way to use far less helium to cool superconducting magnets. Apparently.
On the left side of the image above, you can see Helium produced by the decay of Uranium and Thorium. Much of this gets trapped in natural gas reserves and is extracted as a by-product when the natural gas is tapped. A natural gas source must contain at least 0.3% helium to be considered as a potential helium source.
Helium Resources (Billion Cubic Meters)(from USGS Mineral Commodity Survey)
United States 20.6
Here’s where it is in the US.
Here’s the trends for its extraction, production, export and consumption. It’s running out. We’re using it faster than the planet is making it. By 2050 there won’t be any more. I’m not the first to point this out, but I’m in good company.
Another Cambridge lecturer, William Nuttall, called for the establishment of an International Helium Agency to prevent squandering the resource.
Royal Institution’s 2012 Christmas Lectures, Peter Wothers, will use the series to argue against wasting valuable helium gas in party balloons.
Don’t want be a party pooper, but it might be an idea to save some.
Whimsical media fillers aside, architecture has little dependence upon helium.
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