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Duration:03:53
Uploaded:2012-02-21
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Hank talks about everyone's favorite squeaky-voice gas and why it's important for more than party balloons.

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For further reading:
"U.S. government agencies work to minimize damage due to helium-3 shortfall," Toni Feder, Physics Today October 2009, page 21
http://www.physicstoday.org/resource/1/phtoad/v62/i10/p21_s1?isAuthorize...
"Nation's helium reserve running on empty?" Leslie Tamura, Washington Post, Oct.11, 2010
http://education.jlab.org/itselemental/ele002.html
Hank Green: Hey guys! Guess what gas we're talking about today. [intro music] The news is dire. This is serious stuff, people! Despite the fact that helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, we're running out. Basically, helium is very useful for us because it doesn't really do anything. It's totally inert; it doesn't explode like hydrogen; it doesn't corrode like oxygen. That makes it perfect -- and perfectly safe -- for all kinds of crazy uses like making liquid crystal television displays and pressurizing Nasa's rockets. Helium is also really good at making stuff, like, frickin' cold. It's used in the magnets at the Large Hadron Collider (which we talked about in a previous episode of SciShow) and in the MRI machines that doctors use to scan our bodies to figure out what diseases that we have. 25% of the helium that we use in the United States is used in MRI machines. And how, you ask, can we get more helium before we run out? Well, the answer is, we can't, really, unfortunately. So helium -- second most abundant element in the universe -- care to take a guess at the percentage of it in our atmosphere? Hold that number in your head. Was it 0.00053%? That's five atoms of helium for ever million atoms of atmosphere. Helium is produced by the slow decay of radioactive materials in the Earth's crust, and when it reaches the surface (because it's lighter than air) it just floats up right out of the atmosphere. But some of it gets trapped underground and is captured along with natural gas. The stuff that inflates your Felix Cumpleaños balloon or whatever is extracted from those gas deposits, but not a lot of deposits have enough helium to make it worth extracting. That's probably why the United States Government has a strategic helium reserve, which I didn't believe either when I first heard it, but we do. 16 billion cubic feet of the stuff trapped in dolomite deposits in Texas. And it's good that we have it because the United States of America eats up about half of the world's supply of helium. The government has actually been selling off our stash -- about 2.1 billion feet per year -- to private industry. At that rate, we will run out by 2020. It's not just regular helium that's running out; we're also running out of an isotope called helium-3. Helium-3 is only produced when the tritium in a nuclear bomb decays, and since we're decommissioning more and more nuclear bombs, we're running out of helium-3. Now, it turns out that helium-3 is really good at detecting radiation coming off of potentially dangerous nuclear materials, and so we basically bought the whole bar, like, we have all of the helium-3 that exists, and we're using it to detect for nuclear weapons coming in at ports and airports and stuff. But, since we aren't making nuclear bombs anymore (which I am totally in favor of), we're running out of helium-3. So, what are we gonna do? Well, it's a good thing that 17-year-old Taylor Wilson just invented a bomb detector that doesn't use helium-3 and actually costs, like, 5,000 times less money than a helium-3 detector. This resulted in Taylor winning a $50,000 science fair prize and getting a patent that's probably worth significantly more than that. Speaking of that, we should probably actually just film a whole episode on that guy; he's pretty cool. So, maybe there are some solutions for our helium-related problems, but some applications are just going to require a noble gas that's lighter than air, and there's only one of those. So either gas companies are gonna have to do some more extracting or we're gonna have to get Lando Calrissian to build us a cloud city on Jupiter or something and suck up all the helium that Jupiter's got, 'cause it's not using it. But, knowing Lando, he'd probably lose the whole thing in a card game anyway, so what's the use? [holding helium balloon] I shouldn't be wasting this, but.... [squeaky voice] Until next time, you can follow us on Twitter and on Facebook, and we're always down in the comments section below if you have any questions or suggestions we should be covering on the next episodes of SciShow. [endscreen]