How 9/11 Made The Global Helium Shortage Worse

Hopefully a solution will not float out of reach

Large Hadron Collider

The LHC is kept cool with 120 tons of liquid helium.CERN

Helium has many uses besides filling children's birthday balloons--it's importantly used in MRI machines, wafer manufacturing, and welding. Helium is also used to cool the Large Hadron Collider--120 tons of liquid helium, to be exact--and other particle accelerators that teach us about how the smallest bits of matter behave.

Helium-3, an isotope or form of helium with two protons and one neutron, is especially useful for low-temperature physicists, who use this substance to research quantum properties, and its study has provided breakthroughs in understanding "hydrodynamics of intricately ordered systems, the microscopic theory of electrons in metals" and more. The price of this isotope remained stable for decades at a price of about $100 per liter, as reported by Nature Physics. But then something happened:

But after 11 September 2001, in the interest of national security, the US government started using helium-3-based neutron detectors ('radiation portal monitors') to uncover any potential bomb-making components entering the country. That increased demand, coupled with a large order from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2008, suddenly revealed that the US Department of Energy was allocating helium-3 faster than it could be produced. In 2008, the demand reached 80,000 litres, becoming unsustainable.

Since then, the U.S. has scaled back the use of the substance in these monitors, but there is not enough of both regular helium and helium-3 to go around. Researchers are adapting by "using cryogen-free technology that (although prone to vibration) is compatible with dilution refrigerators and superconducting magnets," Nature reported. Helium-3 derives from the decay of tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen produced in the production of nuclear weapons--as nuclear weapon production has fallen, so has helium-3 abundance. It can also be found on the moon, so if we ever needed a plentiful supply of helium-3, we could get it there. But that would obviously be quite an undertaking.

The situation is worse today (for both helium and helium-3) than it when it was declared "unsustainable" in 2008, and that price has gone up by a factor of 2.5 each year since then. And demand is increasingly outstripping supply (for example, Cornell scientist Robert Richardson said that helium balloons will one day cost $100). So, physicists will have to start using less, writes Northwestern University William Halperin writes in Nature. That means funding will have to be found for projects to use new methods for keeping stuff cool, or technology to conserve helium and prevent it from evaporating.

The situation may get much worse beginning in 2021, Halperin writes. That year, the U.S. is set to close its strategic reserve of helium, which it draws from to alleviate market pressures.