The Science Of Helium And Why Global Supplies Are Running Low Helium is the second-most common element in the cosmos, but it's far rarer on planet Earth. As part of our celebration of the periodic table's 150th birthday, reporter Geoff Brumfiel shares a brief history of helium's ascent, to become a crucial part of rocket ships, MRI machines, and birthday parties. Follow host Maddie Sofia on Twitter @maddie_sofia. Email the show at shortwave@npr.org.
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The World Is Constantly Running Out Of Helium. Here's Why It Matters.

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The World Is Constantly Running Out Of Helium. Here's Why It Matters.

The World Is Constantly Running Out Of Helium. Here's Why It Matters.

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MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: ...From NPR.

Maddie Sofia here with science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: And today we're celebrating. This year, the periodic table turns 150.

SOFIA: Here at SHORT WAVE, we are marking the occasion by talking about some of our favorite elements.

BRUMFIEL: And quite conveniently, I've brought along (laughter) some birthday balloons. But these balloons have a second purpose, Maddie.

SOFIA: What is that purpose, Geoff?

BRUMFIEL: They also contain my favorite element, which is helium. And helium is really interesting in ways you might not expect. The story of helium involves attack blimps.

SOFIA: Yep.

BRUMFIEL: It involves space rockets...

SOFIA: Yeah, sure.

BRUMFIEL: ...Even cutting-edge medical imaging.

SOFIA: I'm less into that, but yeah. OK.

BRUMFIEL: (Laughter).

SOFIA: And I've heard that the world might be running out of helium.

BRUMFIEL: That's true. The world's helium is leaking out as we speak.

SOFIA: So today in the show, we'll talk about what the helium shortage actually means and why a lot more's at stake than a few balloons.

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SOFIA: All right, Geoff, here's what I know about helium. It's, like, the second-most abundant element in the universe.

BRUMFIEL: That's true. Yep, good.

SOFIA: It's not very dense. So sound travels faster through helium than normal air, which is why your voice sounds so high after you inhale it.

BRUMFIEL: You're starting to impress me.

SOFIA: Yes.

BRUMFIEL: Keep going.

SOFIA: It's a noble gas, which probably means it thinks it's better than the other gases.

BRUMFIEL: It certainly does.

SOFIA: And that's what I know.

BRUMFIEL: That's a great primer on helium.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

BRUMFIEL: But to understand it all, we need to go back to the very origin story of this element, which actually happened a year before the periodic table was rolled out.

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BRUMFIEL: It was 1868, and the French astronomer Jules Janssen travels to India to observe an eclipse. He's studying the light coming from the corona around the sun, and he sees the signature of what he thinks might be a new element. Now, the British physicist Norman Lockyer follows up with his own observation and confirms it.

DAVID AUBIN: And he called it helium, a reference to the name of Helios, the sun god.

SOFIA: I didn't even think about that.

AUBIN: So that's - yeah, that's how it started.

BRUMFIEL: That, by the way, is helium historian David Aubin.

AUBIN: I'm a professor for the history of science at Sorbonne Universite in Paris.

BRUMFIEL: But here's the thing.

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BRUMFIEL: Although it's crystal clear there's tons of helium up in the sun, physicists can only find teeny-tiny trace amounts on Earth. And do you know why?

SOFIA: Because it was hiding.

BRUMFIEL: (Laughter).

SOFIA: Because it rises?

BRUMFIEL: Yes.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

BRUMFIEL: It literally just leaves the Earth. It just floats up, and it escapes the atmosphere. It's light enough it goes off into space. And so any helium that's in our atmosphere will eventually work its way out of the atmosphere and into space.

SOFIA: So it's out of here. It's like, no, I'm done with Earth.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, yeah. It's not interested. It didn't need...

SOFIA: Can relate.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, yeah. If the Earth had a stronger gravitational pull, it could hold onto our helium like the sun does because the sun is enormous, and it sucks all that helium in. Anyway, for a couple of decades, no one can find helium down here on the ground. But this changes in 1903 in a little town in Kansas called Dexter.

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BRUMFIEL: Prospectors drilled this well, and gas just comes shooting out, 9 million cubic feet each day. And the townspeople...

SOFIA: Sounds like a lot.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, that's a lot of gas. The townspeople think they've hit natural gas, and they're all going to be rich. And so they get together, and they decide - they have this big celebration with music and speeches. And the climax of the whole thing is they're going to light that gusher.

SOFIA: Like, they're going to light the gas on fire?

BRUMFIEL: Hey, man. Kansas 1903 sounds like a good time to me.

SOFIA: That's - yeah (laughter).

BRUMFIEL: Anyway, so they go through the whole rigmarole, and they set this bale of hay on fire that they start prodding towards the gas pump.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

BRUMFIEL: (Laughter) The gas pump - I told you the story of helium's fantastic.

SOFIA: Yeah.

BRUMFIEL: Anyway, so they (laughter) - they go to the entire celebration. And they (laughter)...

SOFIA: (Laughter).

BRUMFIEL: Just really wish I'd been there.

SOFIA: I know. You would have definitely been like...

BRUMFIEL: I would...

SOFIA: ...No, no, it's a good idea.

BRUMFIEL: (Laughter) I would have been pushing the bale of hay.

SOFIA: Yeah, for sure.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. So they go through this whole celebration. And, you know, the climax comes. They set this bale of hay on fire. They start prodding it towards the well. They push it over the hole, and it goes out.

SOFIA: So at this point, are like - are they like, oh, no, it must not have been natural gas, or are they like, do another bale? What's - what happens?

BRUMFIEL: You know, the historical record (laughter) does not provide a answer to that very interesting question, Maddie. But what this did prove was that there was more than natural gas in that well. And in fact, it was full of helium.

SOFIA: Yes. That's where it's been hiding.

BRUMFIEL: Correct.

SOFIA: So - OK. What is helium doing underground?

BRUMFIEL: Well, this is the really interesting thing. Helium on Earth is created by the natural radioactive decay of heavier elements like uranium and thorium actually inside the Earth. When one of these atom splits apart - boop (ph) - out comes an atom of helium. And as it accumulates inside the Earth, it kind of filters up because it likes to float. And then it gets trapped in these pockets in the crust.

SOFIA: (Singing) Helium pocket.

BRUMFIEL: So anyway, Dexter's discovery is...

SOFIA: Did you get it? It was like Hot Pocket (ph).

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, I...

SOFIA: (Laughter).

BRUMFIEL: Now I get it.

SOFIA: OK.

BRUMFIEL: I missed it the first time.

SOFIA: Oh, it's fine.

BRUMFIEL: But that was fantastic.

SOFIA: That's how you know it's a good joke.

BRUMFIEL: So anyway, Dexter's discovery is a bust at first. But soon it becomes clear that this helium's actually pretty valuable because there is a great war brewing.

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BRUMFIEL: World War I breaks out in Europe. Now, there are airplanes, but the Germans also have a secret weapon.

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: The use of the airship as a weapon caught the Allies unprepared.

BRUMFIEL: The zeppelin.

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: For the first time in history, it was impossible to carry a large cargo of bombs hundreds of miles by air to enemy territory.

SOFIA: So we're talking attack blimps, Geoff?

BRUMFIEL: We've reached the attack-blimp stage of the story.

SOFIA: OK.

BRUMFIEL: That's correct. These zeppelins were actually used to bomb London during World War I.

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: The zeppelin, hidden in the clouds, was reasonably safe from attack and discovery.

BRUMFIEL: But they had kind of a big weakness. They were filled with highly flammable hydrogen.

SOFIA: That'll get you.

BRUMFIEL: So that kind of put an end to the raids. But helium is not flammable. Helium dirigibles could help the U.S. win the war. So the U.S. government takes control of the helium supply and went to work readying its own attack blimps.

AUBIN: They had cylinders filled with helium under docks in New Orleans ready to be shipped to Europe...

SOFIA: Wow.

AUBIN: ...In November 1918. So it would have been used very soon.

BRUMFIEL: The war actually ended before the U.S. ever used its helium. Interestingly, though, helium found a new life after World War II with a new technology.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: T-minus 60 seconds and counting.

BRUMFIEL: In the space race, it turns out rockets need a gas to help push the fuel out through the engines.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Fifteen...

BRUMFIEL: And you need something that's, first of all, lightweight...

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: ...Eleven...

SOFIA: Yes.

BRUMFIEL: ...Highly compressible...

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: ...Nine, eight...

BRUMFIEL: ...Chemically inert because you don't want it reacting with all those volatile chemicals that are in the fuel and stuff.

SOFIA: Right. Right, right.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: ...Two, one...

SOFIA: So it's helium?

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Booster ignition.

BRUMFIEL: It's helium.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: ...(Inaudible) leveled back to 67% of radium quantity. Creates more stress on the shuttles and breaks through the sound barrier.

BRUMFIEL: Helium was actually used in every stage of the Apollo program. From the giant Saturn V rocket to the lunar lander when it took off, it used helium to make its engine run.

SOFIA: Thanks, helium.

BRUMFIEL: So yeah, helium is still used in rockets today. But helium's uses don't stop there, Maddie. In fact, we're in a new age of helium. It's because of another remarkable property. It can be cooled down to very low temperatures. It becomes liquid at 4.2 Kelvin.

SOFIA: Which is real, real cold.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. To put it in perspective, I spoke to a chemist named Sophia Hayes.

SOPHIA HAYES: Sometimes my astrophysics colleagues tell me that the temperature of outer space is 3 Kelvin, so it's just one degree different from the temperature of outer space.

SOFIA: Oh, my goodness.

BRUMFIEL: That's particularly useful for Sophia because her lab at Washington University in St. Louis uses a very special type of material called a superconductor. And basically, these are materials where, when they get cold enough, electricity can flow through them with no resistance at all.

HAYES: And that creates very, very, very large magnetic fields. And so that superconducting state is only reached at low temperatures like that provided by liquid helium.

BRUMFIEL: So she uses liquid helium in magnets, and she uses these magnets for something called nuclear magnetic resonance. She uses it to study materials. But it's basically the same technology as something you may have heard of, magnetic resonance imaging.

HAYES: Like, we're talking MRIs that we use on people?

BRUMFIEL: Exactly. And MRIs are actually a part of the reason that helium is in such short supply now because MRI machines all over the world use helium. And they use liquid helium, which is much denser than the stuff in these balloons. So, you know, they need a lot of it. But there are only really three places in the world that produce most of the world's helium - Algeria, Qatar and the U.S. So say there's a crisis in the Gulf...

HAYES: Every researcher in these associations will sometimes be watching those news stories and think, uh-oh, there's going to be a cutback in our supply.

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SOFIA: I mean, I know a lot of scientists that are worried - like, that work with lasers and that kind of stuff are worried about helium in general.

BRUMFIEL: That's right. And it's really an issue of volatility because the prices can go up and down so much that Sophia actually had to shut down some of her magnets.

HAYES: Those are very high capital-cost pieces of equipment. And for want of a chemical to sustain it - the liquid helium - we are taking those off-line, making smaller the number of experiments that one can do or maybe even shrinking the size of the research groups.

SOFIA: Wow.

BRUMFIEL: And, I mean, the problem is going to grow for the scientific community. Maybe you've heard about this new Google quantum computer...

SOFIA: Yeah.

BRUMFIEL: ...That supposedly has beaten out classical computers at certain calculations. Well, it uses helium to cool the chip.

SOFIA: OK. So MRIs, quantum computers, scientific research - is this all kind of coming to a head? Like, are we running out of helium, Geoff?

BRUMFIEL: You know, when I spoke to Sophia Hayes, I was worried about that. It turns out there are other natural gas fields in other parts of the world that do produce helium, and they're not being harvest right now. Some of them are planning to step up production, so that should help in the short term. But eventually, we are probably going to run out because once it gets out, you know, into the atmosphere, it's flown off into space. It's not coming back.

SOFIA: But what about it being, like, naturally made during the radioactive decay stuff you talked about?

BRUMFIEL: That's true. But that all happens one atom at a time, and it takes a long time to accumulate even enough helium to fill a balloon. So nobody knows, of course, exactly how much uranium is in the Earth and where it all is. But if we had to guess, we would guess that the accumulated helium is going to run out at some point.

SOFIA: Well, now I feel like garbage because we've got these three helium balloons just sitting in here doing nothing.

BRUMFIEL: Well, I asked Sophia how she felt about helium balloons.

HAYES: OK. That's a tough one. And there's a lot of debate in my community of researchers who really value the helium, every puff, if you will. I will say I am not a balloon denier, in part because...

BRUMFIEL: (Laughter).

HAYES: ...I think the helium that's used for party balloons gets every person, almost, to care about this resource. Whereas, if I say, how do you feel about argon? You may not have an opinion about argon, which is another inert gas.

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SOFIA: I do have thoughts about argon, Geoff. She's incorrect. But that will be a later episode.

BRUMFIEL: Well, I'd be happy to come back and do this again, Maddie.

SOFIA: All right, Geoff. Knock open one of those helium balloons. Let's do this.

BRUMFIEL: You got it (laughter). Do we have scissors?

SOFIA: I mean, you have nature's scissors, which are your teeth.

BRUMFIEL: (Laughter).

SOFIA: OK, Geoff Brumfiel, thank you for coming back.

BRUMFIEL: It's been an absolute pleasure, Maddie.

SOFIA: Hang on. Let me get some more. I'm Maddie Sofia, and this is SHORT WAVE from NPR (laughter).

BRUMFIEL: (Laughter).

SOFIA: Nailed it.

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