Helium is the second most common element in the universe. However, on planet earth it is quite rare. More so, it is the only non-renewable resource that the planet has. This means that humans have to be very considerate when using helium. In fact, it takes many millennia (thousands of years) for the earth to produce the element once again.
Today, helium is the well-known component of decorative balloons. Although the usage of it in weather balloons (used in research) and airships is increasingly common. It is also a gas that is used in relation to space journeys. For example, it was used in the Apollo program that put the first human on the moon.
What is helium?
As mentioned above, helium is the second most common element in the universe (about 25 %). It comes after hydrogen that is the most usual (over 90 %) substance. However, on planet earth, helium accounts for only 0.0005 % of the atmosphere. This makes it a rare resource. More so it takes thousands of years for the earth to produce it. Which is a reason to use it very carefully.
So what is it? The earth produces helium deep underground. It is the product of a natural radioactivity process with other elements (for example uranium). After the process, that takes thousands of years, the element seeps through the surface of the earth (or more specifically the earths crust). Then, it gets trapped in pockets of natural gas. This is also how it can finally be extracted for human use. In fact, it is common that it is a by-product from the extraction of natural gas.
Furthermore, helium is a very lightweight substance. This – in combination with the fact that it does not mix with other elements – makes it a gas that can escape the earth very easily. In other words, it physically disappears from the earth and its atmosphere. Meaning it goes straight out into space. Therefore, the resource does not turn into pollution. This also implies that it cannot be recycled. One can then also state that helium has no negative environmental effects.
The usage of helium
A huge deposit of helium was found in the US, in natural gas fields. Since then, it has also been found in Algeria and Qatar. Although, the resource remains very scare. This is one of the reasons of why the US is leading in helium supply. In fact the country controlled the worlds helium supply after the second world war. Something that led to the US military experimenting with the substance. For example by making airships, gigantic crafts that fly on helium.
Today, helium is found in decorative balloons. It is the substance that make it possible for balloons to stay in the air instead of falling to the ground. But it is also used in high-tech processes in a liquid form. For instance in really advanced quantum computers. More so, it is used while making many conventional electronics. As mentioned, it is also used in space travel. More specifically in rockets.
Environmentally friendly airships
Researchers say that helium can be a part of commercial airships in a green future. They are for example called “hybrid air vehicles” (HAV). If things go as the developers have planned, HAVs aircrafts will be transporting people in 2025. This a huge for the environmental movement, as it enables air travel with very low emissions. Therefore, it is possible that the near future offers commercial HAV flights in Europe. Although, the non-renewable aspect of helium remains a crucial issue.