Qatar is the world’s second-biggest producer of helium, the gaseous element that sits at the top-right of the periodic table.
You may be wondering, what’s the big deal? Is it so bad if birthday parties have to go without balloons? Actually, as my fellow Forbes contributor Ethan Siegel has already pointed out, helium is critical to modern technology and medicine. Here’s what you need to know.
Besides balloons and blimps, how else do we use helium?
The biggest use for helium, by far, is keeping things cool. Under the kinds of conditions we’re used to on Earth, helium never freezes, even if you come within a hair’s breadth of absolute zero (that’s roughly 460 degrees BELOW ZERO on the Fahrenheit temperature scale). Liquid helium is a valuable commodity - the gas becomes a liquid at about about 450 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
What needs to be kept so chilly? Every MRI scanner on the planet, for one thing. These scanners rely on superconducting magnets, and they won’t work properly unless they’re kept cold. Chemists use an instrument that operates on the same principles as MRI to determine molecules’ structures. It needs liquid helium, too. And if all that’s not important enough for you, the Large Hadron Collider also needs helium to stay cool. Particle physics experiments at the collider would grind to a halt without helium.
Helium has other useful properties as well. It doesn’t catch fire, and it doesn’t react with much of anything. That makes it handy as a protective gas when making certain kinds of silicon wafers for semiconductors, as well as in the welding industry.
There are also applications that involve breathing helium. This isn't about wanting to make your voice sound funny. A mixture of helium and oxygen, known as heliox, is used for scuba diving by the U.S. Navy and others who perform technical dives. Doctors use heliox, as well, for patients whose airway is somewhat blocked off by a tumor or some other obstruction. For these patients, regular air (oxygen mixed with nitrogen) feels as thick as pea soup, and heliox helps them get more of the oxygen they need.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention what might be the most ingenious use for helium yet— an experimental helium-infused stout, brewed by my intrepid former colleagues at Chemical & Engineering News.
Where does helium come from?
Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, after hydrogen. But we have to stick to Earth itself for our helium needs, at least for the foreseeable future. It’s not cost-effective to pull helium out from the air. Instead, it comes from underground. Companies extract helium from natural gas, and then cool it to ultra-cold temperatures so it’s in liquid form for shipping. That’s a really expensive proposition, so only a few large companies are in the helium business.
How badly is this Qatar shutdown going to affect helium supplies?
The short answer is that it’s too soon to tell. The longer answer is, it’s complicated. Earth's supply of helium is finite and it's important to be good stewards of that precious resource. But in terms of the helium business, uncertainty has been the name of the game over the last decade or so. The U.S. is the biggest producer of helium, and laws regulating how it can sell its reserves led to fluctuating prices, according to reports in WIRED. When Qatar started up a giant helium plant in 2013, it was seen as a step toward more stability in the helium supply. Now all of that, if you’ll forgive the pun, is up in the air.
Got any other fun facts about helium?
I’ll end with a timely factoid— helium was first detected during the total solar eclipse that occurred on August 18, 1868. Eclipses create special conditions that allow scientists to carry out all sorts of observations that might be highly challenging or impossible otherwise. That’s true even today. NASA scientists and experts around the world are gearing up for the total solar eclipse that coming on August 21, 2017. Who knows what they’ll discover this time around?
Carmen Drahl, Contributor