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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Helium Shortage? Are They For Real?

This is a story that has been around for several years yet I heard about it for the first time tonight on our local tv station. Of course, they were simply boo hooing the fact that the balloon people would have less helium for the balloons for Valentine' Day instead of taking it seriously. So, I looked up a few things about this story that really surprised me considering helium has been so easy to come by, seemingly.

From what I've learned, there are two types of helium.....one is the type that you fill balloons, use with arc welders, Macy's parade balloons, dirigibles like the Goodyear blimp we see over sports events. Then there is another kind, very rare, that is used for a very different purpose or should I say purposes. It's called Helium-3, an isotope that they will be able to use in fuel for a type of nuclear fusion that would, in theory, burn cleanly in a reactor. Scientists believe that if they can harness this, a space shot could go all the way to Mars in a weekend instead of months. Astronauts could see the outer planets where there is a vast supply of the very helium that we are growing short of right now. Can you say SHORT SIGHTED? There certainly are many of that type of person in our world. In fact, they are abundant, unlike the helium.

But the uses I've told you about are not all. NASA uses helium in their space launches now to pressurize space shuttle fuel tanks. Other industry uses it for arc welders and to detect leaks. In addition, liquid helium cools infrared detectors, nuclear reactors, wind tunnels, and the superconductive magnets in MRI equipment.The loss of this element could be very damaging to our existence.

The most amazing thing is that nearly the entire world's supply of helium is stored within a 250 mile radius of Amarillo, Texas. They call it the Helium capital of the world with good reason. And there is a "but" in there. Most of the helium is owned by the Federal government who is getting out of the business and selling off the supply it has been gathering since 1960. The government is selling to all comers and the thirty-two billion cubic feet of the gas that are bunkered underground in Cliffside, near Amarillo, is going to be kaput in about 10-25 years.

What does this say about us? We are using up the elements of our planet without regard to their necessity. Is helium a necessary element on this planet? The answer, IF we are HONEST, is yes simply because it is already here. There must be a reason for its' existence in the first place.

We have a government that is shrugging it's shoulders and telling us that it is not valuable enough to save, not necessary to seek out more. How careless and reckless can we actually get? Well, that question is already being answered right now, isn't it.

A Helium Shortage?

There are two kinds of stable helium. You know the first one: It puts lift in birthday balloons, Thanksgiving Day parades, the Goodyear blimp.

The other kind, an isotope called helium-3, may not be as familiar. It's a naturally occurring, but very rare, variant of helium that is missing a neutron. Helium-3 is the fuel for a form of nuclear fusion that, in theory, could provide us with a clean, virtually infinite power source.

Gerald Kulcinski, director of the University of Wisconsin's Fusion Technology Institute, is already halfway there. Kulcinski is in charge of an "inertial electrostatic confinement device," an experimental low-power reactor that has successfully performed continuous deuterium-helium-3 fusion - a process that produces less waste than the standard deuterium-tritium fusion reaction.

The next step, pure helium-3 fusion (3He-3He) is a long way off, but it's worth the effort, says Kulcinski. "You'd have a little residual radioactivity when the reactor was running, but none when you turned it off. It would be a nuclear power source without the nuclear waste."

For more information on this subject and the rest of this article, please visit Wired .