Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Explaining the Helium Crisis in 90 seconds

Space Travel has marveled generation after generation since man first stepped on the moon over 50 years ago. The whole Curiosity Mars touch down spectacular reminded me of another funny problem with a strange space solution: The Helium Crisis.

In the 1920s, the United States decided that blimps were the future of military technology. Imagine flying military fortresses. In order to make it happen, the US needed to stockpile Helium. A lot of it. Well, the dream of flying dirigible fortresses came and went; only to survive in fictional steam-punk universes.

Only problem is that the Helium stockpile didn't die with the dream. It lasted for almost 70 years.

 During the Clinton-era budget cuts of 1996, it was finally realized that a Helium stockpile of global conquest proportions was no longer needed. So Congress decided to sell it off. Makes sense so far, but then they decided to do so in a very bad, no-good way. By fixing the price until the stockpile is gone. The era of artificially cheap Helium was upon us. Everybody break out the party balloons.

The price of Helium was so low that it made no economic sense to recycle this non-renewable resource. Just use it and use it some more.Which would be fine, if Helium wasn't also really, really hard to come by. Once we are out, the party is over. Helium is used in a lot of medical equipment including MRI scanners, Industrial manufacturing processes like welding, and consumer products such as everything with an LCD screen in it. Once we are out, the party is really over.

After the pleading of scientists, Congress put the breaks on this program in 2008 before the stockpile ran dry. Market forces returned to work and the price of Helium sky-rocketed. The era of cheap party balloons was over.

Here comes the funny space solution: Though there isn't much Helium left to be found on earth, there are massive amounts to be found on the moon. Space-mining anyone?

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