Unless we’re spending time under water or in outer space, we kind of take oxygen for granted.
It’s literally everywhere, completely surrounding us. And it’s quite renewable, as long as we fill our environment with plants and carbon dioxide.
But the same can’t be true about oxygen’s close neighbor on the periodic table of elements — helium. We know it best as what makes balloons float, and (if we happen to breathe a little bit in) our voices sound funny.
What we don’t realize, however, is how much our society actually depends on helium. In fact, according to National Geographic, it’s our best coolant, used in everything from MRIs to computer chip production — even something deep divers mix with oxygen to help avoid decompression sickness.
There is more helium in the universe than any other element, save hydrogen. Yet, here on Earth, it’s actually quite hard to find.
And we’re running out of it.
And there’s no economical way to make more. Unless, of course, someone can recreate nuclear fusion of hydrogen in places like our sun.
Actually, most of the helium we use on this planet comes from the natural radioactive decay of elements like thorium and uranium inside the Earth’s crust. Because it’s so light, it tries to float to the surface, eventually finding itself stuck not too far below the surface.
Mining — especially for natural gases — seems to be the best way to find helium. But once those pockets are discovered and mined, there’s really no way to replenish it.
We have spent a lot of time looking for ways to support our environment while making our lives better. And while banning plastic bags, recycling and renewable energy is important — so is conserving helium.
At this point, there is maybe a century of helium left. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.
After years of depressed pricing as the United States rid itself of a huge stockpile of helium, we continue to waste it every single day.
That needs to stop. Efforts are being made in labs and other places to try and recycle helium after it’s used, but there’s no real good way to reuse helium once it’s used in silly social practices, like balloons.
We don’t want to be party poopers, but we have no choice. We all will get to enjoy helium and benefit from it, but what about our grandchildren?
Conservation is the only way to protect our helium supplies. And there’s no better time to start than right now.