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November 27, 2012

Slate: Macy's parade contributes to loss of helium supplies

(Continued)

Producing helium artificially is possible in theory, but only through fission or nuclear fusion of two hydrogen atoms. Fission is impractical because enormous quantities of heavy metals like uranium and thorium would be necessary, and fusion won't work because of the high energies required to combine hydrogen atoms to form helium. Commercial fusion energy is the goal of much research around the globe but is very far from being a reality. (The New York Times recently questioned the DOE's investment in fusion research.) Even if fusion ever reliably produced more energy than is required to start the reaction, the industry would not take off for many decades, and the amount of helium produced would be marginal.

While helium can be replaced for some applications, in cryogenics there aren't any alternatives. As a result, nearly 6.4 billion cubic feet of helium are consumed globally per year out of a slowly dwindling supply of 1.87 trillion cubic feet. If the rate of helium consumption grows at 4 percent per year (as the National Academy of Sciences projects) the helium currently available, plus that estimated to be untapped underground, could all be lost to the atmosphere in 65 years. Once helium is released into the atmosphere-as when balloons are deflated — it becomes almost prohibitively expensive to retrieve and purify. The lower the helium content a gas has, the more expensive it is to separate out. No one knows exactly how much it would cost to purify it from the air, but Nobel Prize-winning Cornell physicist Robert Richardson (co-chair of the 2010 NAS report) estimates it may make the price of helium 10,000 times what it is now.

Of course, there are those that think the helium panic is overblown. Some estimates claim the global supply of helium will last at least another 300 years. As helium becomes more scarce and expensive to purify, recycling will become more widespread, but recycling is possible for only certain applications.

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