Editorial: On the helium shortage


I’m guilty of it, you’re guilty of it — at one point in time we’ve all jumped on a bandwagon for a cause. Maybe we truly did care about cancer research.

For two months leading up to Relay For Life, we posted statistics about cancer on Facebook.

But when Relay was over, so was our passion for advocating. Then we were on to the next fad.

I want to talk about a passion of mine that has stuck with me, and is without a bandwagon because so few people know about it.

Something that gets me heated up, even though it sounds silly when I start talking about it. I want to talk about helium.

There is a helium shortage. Scientists estimate that by the year 2020, our helium reserves will be empty.

So, what, no more floating balloons at birthday parties or events? That sounds like the least of our problems. But in reality, helium is a truly valuable resource.

For one, it’s used in MRI machines. These machines have a large magnet that contains superconducting wire that needs to be cooled to -233 degrees Celsius.

Helium is the only element on Earth that can keep the magnet this cold.

Without helium, we will be unable to continue manufacturing MRI machines or repair damaged ones, thereby severely mitigating our ability to scan our bodies for diseases or other problems.

One of the reasons helium is so valuable is because it’s an inert element, which means it’s perfectly safe to work with.

Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, so it seems strange that we could be approaching a shortage.

The answer to this riddle is in the method with which helium is produced.

Helium is produced by the slow decay of radioactive materials in the Earth’s crust.

When the helium reaches the surface it floats out of our atmosphere because it’s lighter than air.

The helium that composes our atmosphere isn’t really useful because it only comprises 0.00053 per cent.

However, some of it does get trapped in the ground and can be extracted along with natural gas.

The Federal Helium Reserve located in Amarillo, Texas supplies one-third of the world’s demand for helium.

They threatened to shut down in order to pay off the facility’s debt, but last year a decision was made to keep the reserve open and gradually sell off the gas.

But as the United States’ supply dwindles, helium prices are expected to skyrocket.

The first time I heard this information, I felt frustrated. Some of the best stories about humanity are about people using science to invent cutting edge technology, such as MRI machines.

Then we go and undermine this progression by using helium for party balloons and other frivolous functions.

Although we are probably going to run out of helium regardless of whether we continue to waste it on balloons, I can’t help but think how incredibly selfish that is.

Maybe you don’t care there is a helium shortage. Maybe you think that even if we do run out of helium, scientists will find another element to use in MRI machines or develop other methods to achieve the same end.

You might be right. In the past we have worked through roadblocks and found other means to sustain technology.

My point, then, is that you shouldn’t be afraid to get passionate about seemingly silly things.

When we simply jump on the bandwagon of whatever social injustice or charitable cause is being blown up at the time, we cause it to become commonplace and ourselves to become complacent.

If we see the same messages plastered to our Facebook newsfeed every day, it’s easy to take the cause for granted and overlook the humanity that’s working so passionatley behind the movement.

So get excited about what matters to you, and maybe on your birthday let people know you don’t want any balloons.

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