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Federal Helium Reserve Nearly Depleted

Helium Balloons

Helium is a gas that is used in many different fields. One of the most common and well-known uses is in the welding industry. Welders depend on helium for many applications and the thought of any reserve, whether private or federal, being depleted is sobering. Helium is also used in some military applications, the medical field, and even in the space and computer industries.

This valuable gas is one that, once it is gone, cannot be replaced. Scientists say that it has taken 4.7 billion years for the Earth to produce the helium that is being used and it takes a very long time for helium to form. There is nothing on Earth that can replace helium.

At one point in time, the Federal Reserve had billions of cubic feet of helium that they could not sell. The government decided that it needed to sell all of the spare helium in the reserve by 2015. President Clinton signed a bill in 1996 to privatize the helium business but the reserve will most likely not be depleted on time. More than 2 billion cubic feet of helium is for sale from the reserve every year.

The problem doesn't lie just in the Federal Reserve. It is estimated that even private sources could run out of helium in just 25 to 100 years. This may seem like a very long time, but when industry is evolving ever more rapidly and new uses for helium in the science, medical, and other fields is being found, it is a serious issue.

Some estimate that the United States could actually end up having to start importing helium in as soon as 10 ‚Äď 15 years. Russia, Australia, and the Middle East are the largest off-shore producers of helium. In selling the reserve, should private sources run out, the US will have no choice but to import helium, most likely from Russia and the Middle East.

Scientists at the University of Texas in Amarillo are developing a machine that will allow them to reuse the helium used in the sciences. While it will cost around $150,000 to build, the university feels that the cost is minimal when compared to the rising cost of helium. In 2010 federal crude helium was $64.75 per thousand cubic feet but it has already risen to $75 in 2011. Prices are expected to continue to increase.

High prices and a possible US shortage could have serious effects on welders and anyone else who relies on helium for their work.

Ed C.

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