Feature Article: US Sale of Helium Criticised

Present worldwide helium usage is about 170 million cubic metres a year. On paper, worldwide reserves should last about 40 years at present growth rates, the report says, but warns that figure is based on optimistic assumptions. The panel worries particularly about US domestic needs, warning that the country, long the source of most of the world's helium, will become a net importer in 10 to 15 years, and pointedly notes that the "principal foreign sources of helium will be in the Middle East and Russia".

With rising helium prices squeezing budgets, the panel urges the US to expand programmes that directly supply government agencies and research projects with helium from the reserve, and to reduce helium consumption by recovering evaporating cryogens, for example.

However, the panel is vague on the long term, urging Congress and the Bureau of Land Management, which runs the helium reserve, to study how to assure future supplies.

But supplies of ordinary helium are no problem compared to a growing shortage in supplies of the rare isotope helium-3, according to a news story in Science. New applications such as neutron detectors that look for smuggled plutonium require pure helium-3. Consumption is expected to top 65,000 litres per year – a tiny fraction of the usage of ordinary helium-4. But the isotope is so rare on Earth that proposals have been made to mine it from the moon. Today's supplies are dropping because they come mostly from the decay of tritium, a hydrogen isotope with a 12.3-year half-life used in nuclear weapons, and tritium stocks have dropped since the end of the Cold War.

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