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Helium: A Very Non-Renewable Natural Resource May 13, 2013

Posted by federalist in Energy.

Where are the environmentalists when it really matters? They pitch fits about depleting natural resources, most of which are to some degree renewable or replaceable. Except for one in particular that is practically both irreplaceable and non-renewable: helium. And who shows up to lobby for the continued preservation of this natural resource? “A coalition including orthopedic surgeons, industrial welders and balloon makers….

Helium has a number of unique characteristics that make it indispensable to current industrial applications, and that seem likely to make it essential for future technologies. (Here’s one interesting backgrounder on the element.) Unfortunately those characteristics include exceptional levity and inertness, so when released into the atmosphere helium gradually evaporates into outer space. The only source of terrestrial helium is radioactive decay, which over eons has produced some natural concentrations in impermeable geological formations. When we drill into these formations for natural gas we often get small quantities of accumulated helium. Once we have tapped those pockets we’ll essentially be out of industrial quantities of helium. The prudent course of action, which the U.S. government has been leading, is to stockpile helium found during drilling in the Federal Helium Reserve. This Reserve just became profitable, which strangely required Congressional action to allow it to continue operations.


1. pamela flynn - May 14, 2013

Up to now, I’ve never thought about where helium comes from!

2. federalist - May 14, 2013

Another interesting fact I uncovered while researching this post: One would expect that denser gases would accumulate at lower altitudes, the same way non-soluble liquids stratify by density when mixed in a container. It turns out that natural turbulence keeps the chemical composition of the atmosphere homogenous up to an altitude of 60 miles! This is referred to as the homosphere, whereas above that altitude (the heterosphere) gases do begin to stratify by weight.

3. federalist - May 13, 2015

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