SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Helium, that colorless, odorless, tasteless, inert, non-toxic gas, most often employed to inflate party balloons - and for then creating squeaky voices - is becoming extinct worldwide. The price is on an upward spiral, which means Slippery Rock University chemistry students are quickly learning the economic laws of supply and demand.
On campus, the chemical element, with the atomic number 2 on the Periodic Table of Elements, is used in cryogenics, particularly for cooling the University's superconducting magnets, said Donald Zapien, SRU professor of chemistry.
"Superconducting magnets only operate at very low temperatures which can be produced by using the super cooling temperature of liquid helium," he said. The magnets on campus are used to create a magnetic field around molecules enabling students to examine molecular structures as part of chemistry lab courses. It is also used in a number of chemistry-related research projects."
"It [the shortage] is a subject that is affecting everyone in the scientific community," Zapien said.
"Unfortunately," he said, "we need the amount of liquid helium that we need to make use of the expensive equipment we have on campus. So, I am afraid we will just have to bear any cost increases, or idle the very expensive equipment that we have."
Frank Oesterling, a sales engineer at Greco Gas Co.'s Butler Office, which supplies much of SRU's helium, says the price is already up 50 to 75 percent compared to the last two years. "We have been allocated only two-thirds of the supply we received a year ago." He said he expects to see further prices increases and is telling a number of customers they will have to reduce usage.
Greco supplies helium to a number of "big balloon" users in the area as well as the welding industry. Helium (and argon, another elemental gas) is often used to create a "gas blanket" at welding sites. The helium blanket keeps oxygen away from the molten metal making for a better bond. It is also used extensively in hospital and clinic MRI machines.
National Geographic reports most of the U.S. helium supplies come from natural gas in the Great Plains. "The U.S. began stockpiling it in the 1960s, but in 1996 opted to recoup its investment and sell off the reserve by 2015. After that, other producers, including Russia, Algeria and Qatar, will control what's left of the global market: perhaps a mere 40 year's worth."
Zapien said helium, one of the so-called "noble gases," is also used on campus as an inert gas to flow through chromatic graphing equipment in order to separate molecules in a mixture as part of gas chromatography, the analysis of chemical compounds.
"We also use helium to drive out oxygen from liquids used in liquid chromatography and in organic synthesis," he said.
SRU receives liquid nitrogen deliveries about twice a month. Liquid helium is usually delivered twice each year. The next delivery is expected during summer.
The worldwide shortage is attributed to continued use and dwindling natural supplies.
The gas, which cannot be made, is created by the natural radioactive decay of heavy radioactive elements and is captured through a fractional distillation process.
The U.S. government has storage stockpiles, mostly in Texas at the nation's only Federal Helium Reserve. The facility reportedly stores about a third of the entire known world supply. Work is under way to privatize ownership of the U.S. supply.
Helium is also used extensively in medical scanners, LCD screens, welding, electronics, metals, fiber optics, aerospace and research as well as weather balloons. It is used in lifting dirigible airships, including those that cover outdoor sporting events. It replaces the explosive hydrogen formerly used in airships. The gas is mixed with oxygen for some newborn babies needing lung development and for underwater divers to reach deeper parts of the oceans.
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