Helium is the second most common element in the universe. However, on Earth, it is rare. It is the only non-renewable resource that the planet has. Therefore, 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 again.
Today, helium is a well-known component of decorative balloons. Although the use of it in weather balloons (used in research) and airships is increasingly common. More so, it gets used for 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, it is the second most common element in the universe (about 25 %). It comes after hydrogen, which is the most usual (over 90 %) substance. However, on planet Earth, helium accounts for only 0.0005 % of the atmosphere, which makes it a rare resource. It takes thousands of years for the Earth to produce it.
So what is it? The Earth produces it deep underground. It is the product of a natural radioactivity process with other elements (for example uranium). After the process, which takes thousands of years, the element seeps through the surface of the Earth (or, more specifically, the Earth’s crust). Then, it gets trapped in pockets of natural gas, which is how humans can extract it. It is a common by-product of the extraction of natural gas.
Furthermore, helium is a lightweight substance that does not mix with other elements. Therefore, it can easily escape the Earth. In other words, it physically disappears from the Earth and goes straight into space. These qualities make it impossible to recycle it. More so, the element does not contribute to any pollution. In fact, it has no negative environmental effects.
The use of helium
The United States has a massive deposit of helium in natural gas fields. The element got discovered in Algeria and Qatar also. Although, the resource remains very scarce. This is one of the reasons why the US is leading in helium supply. In fact, the country controlled the world’s supply of the element 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 makes it possible for balloons to stay in the air instead of falling to the ground. It also gets used in high-tech processes (such as advanced quantum computers) and to make conventional electronics. As mentioned, helium gets used in space travel as well. 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 aircraft will be transporting people in 2025. This a huge for the environmental movement, as it enables air travel with very low emissions. Therefore, there may be commercial HAV flights in Europe in the future. Although, the non-renewable aspect of helium remains a crucial issue.