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It’s one of those days where I am completely disgusted by the inability of America to walk and chew gum at the same time.  People are annoyed that a mosque might be built a block from New York Dolls (a topless bar) when we haven’t built anything three blocks down where the WTC used to be in almost 9 years.  The left can’t appreciate the most progressive president in a generation, whose staff in turn can’t appreciate that when you have the votes you run up the score.  We have people complaining that getting criticized for racial epithets on the radio is denying them freedom of speech.  And we’re running out of helium.

I wish I were making this up.  I wish there were a snark tag on this.  Instead, I’ll link to the New Scientist and its interview with Robert Richardson, who won a Nobel prize in 1996 for his work on superfluidity in helium. He is the Floyd R. Newman Professor of Physics at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

If the only use helium had were blowing up party balloons, I wouldn’t really care.  But, NASA uses the stuff to clean out its rockets.  And your average life-saving MRI machine uses it to keep the magnets cool.  It helps deep-sea divers breathe when they get very far down below the surface of the ocean.  If that were not enough, it’s used to detect industrial leaks and in making fibre optics. I’m sure there are lots of Kossacks far better versed in this kind of thing than I am, but the point is, it would be a shame not to have any left.

Thanks to lousy government policy, that’s where we’re headed.  The same year that Professor Richardson got his Nobel, the GOP-controlled Congress decided to force the government to sell off the US National Helium Reserve by 2015 regardless of the price.  And President Clinton, ever the political animal, didn’t veto the bill because, well, who wants to run for re-election defending America’s helium reserve?

Now, when you dump a commodity in a market, the price drops.  It’s so cheap now that it doesn’t pay to recycle it.  Or as Professor Richardson said to the British newspaper, The Independent,
"As a result of that Act, helium is far too cheap and is not treated as a precious resource. It's being squandered."

And because it’s so light, when released into the atmosphere, it sort of leaves altogether – into space one atom at a time.  That’s not me talking that’s the Professor, "Once helium is released into the atmosphere in the form of party balloons or boiling helium it is lost to the Earth forever, lost to the Earth forever."

I guess this all begs the question of why America has a national reserve of the stuff in the first place.  Well, its military applications sum that up.  In the 1920s, military blimps were still important.  The Hindenberg burned because (in part) it was full of hydrogen; the US kept its non-flammable helium to itself.  And during the Cold War, helium would have been useful in building rockets to carry nukes to the Soviet Union.

So why did our leaders decide to sell it off?  No Cold War need and free-market ideology.  Representative Christopher Cox, a California Republican, said in a New York Times Interview in 1996, "No matter who gains title to the helium in the Federal stockpile, the helium will still exist.  It won't be wasted. The only real risk is that the Government might sell it off quickly to get cash to reduce the deficit. That's misleading accounting practice. But we are contemplating a gradual transfer of ownership, taking half a lifetime." Well, bucko, we didn’t get that, did we?  What we got was a bunch of helium consumers lobbying to dump it all in 10 years (half a lifetime only if you die at 20). And then, the ever popular conservative mantra, "The gas companies are already extracting 90 percent of the helium produced in this country, and they will certainly continue," Mr. Cox said.  Certainly, we'll drill, baby, drill.

However, in 1995 a bunch of pointy-headed geeks who called themselves the American Physical Society (stupid professional physicists with PhDs and beat up Pontiacs and not real smart people with MBAs and new BMWs) "deplored the projected liquidation of Government helium reserves and reported that 3.2 billion cubic feet of helium are being dumped into the atmosphere each year and are forever lost. Unless the Government creates economic incentives to private industry for extracting and storing the otherwise wasted helium, one of the world's most valuable resources will be squandered at incalculable cost to future generations."

"The present world growth rate in demand for helium is about 10 percent per year," the society's report said. "A simple calculation shows that if that rate were to continue, and if helium production could keep up with the demand, United States helium-rich reserves would be exhausted in only 21 years."

I’m too disgusted to go on.  Let me leave you with this one thought.  Maybe if our government listened to experts just 10% of the time, the country wouldn’t be as f*cked up.  I mean really, what kind of country can run out of helium?

Originally posted to Vinlander on Tue Aug 24, 2010 at 01:10 PM PDT.


What do you use helium for?

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