Helium may be the second most abundant element in the universe, but for party enthusiasts, scientists, and the Goodyear blimp, abundance is the last thing that comes to mind when thinking of helium.
In fact, there is a major shortage occurring worldwide on helium. That may seem counterintuitive, but remember that Earth is just one part of a big universe, and every time helium leaves the Earth, it does not return.
Helium is extracted from natural gas refineries and most of it is stored in Amarillo, Texas where the government operates and maintains a reservoir which is responsible for 42 percent of the helium requirements in U.S. and 35 percent of the world’s helium.
The shortage comes from simple supply and demand. The supply is not being replenished fast enough to meet the demands of society.
But what are those “demands,” besides balloons and changing a person’s voice to sound like a chipmunk?
The Federal Helium Program explains that, “helium is an essential resource for the aerospace industry, aluminum helium arc welding, computer chip and optical fiber manufacturing, scuba diving mixtures, and for medical uses including MRI magnet cooling, lung tissue visualization, heart catheterization methods, and medical lasers.
Helium is also used in rocket engine testing, scientific balloons, and blimps. Surveillance devices, air to air missile guidance, and chemical warfare testing systems are just some of the military uses for helium.”
The chemistry department at Slippery Rock uses helium primarily for use of
the NMR, or nuclear magnetic resonance, machines.
Dr. Jiyoung Jung, organic chemistry professor, explains that the NMR contains a super magnet which can only operate at low temperatures.
Liquid helium is added to the machine twice a year and allows the magnets to reach those temperatures and function properly.
Liquid helium can get as cold as -268°C, about four degrees Kelvin away from hitting absolute zero, making ideal for the task of cooling the supermagnet. Without helium, the machine is of no use.
NMR is used to determine the structure of certain compounds by analyzing the way that protons respond to the magnetic pulls in the machine.
Think of an NMR as showing a chemical fingerprint and scientists can use that fingerprint to determine a better idea of how the compound’s structure is arranged.
Students taking Organic Chemistry II this semester experienced this technology first hand just this week when each of them were given an unknown compound and a list of three structures, one of which was the unknown.
By using the NMR machines, students were able to get the fingerprint of their unknown and can use that to determine which of the three structures the compound matches.
Cody Miller, 20, a sophomore biochemistry major, was one of the students that conducted the experiment.
“Doing worksheets and hearing lectures about NMR are great, but it’s much more interesting and helpful to actually get to use the machines yourself,” Miller said.
Jung also described the use of helium in gas chromatography. Gas chromatography can be used to test the purity of a substance and in some cases to identify a compound.
“Helium can be very useful in organic chemistry because it is inert so there is not going to be any reaction,” Jung explains, adding that this makes helium useful in maintaining instruments used in organic chemistry.
Jung tries to use Argon and Nitrogen, inert gasses like helium, as often as possible as they are not as expensive, but some of the instruments, like the NMR machines, have an absolute necessity for helium.
The helium crisis is getting serious.
According to Popular Mechanics, “in the U.S. there is only enough helium left in the government reserve near Amarillo to last about another three years.”
This situation is supposed to be addressed by the Helium Stewartship Act of 2012 which would “encourage more helium extraction from natural gas exploration and production.” However, the bill remains in the senate.