US gov's emptying of vast Texan helium-tank dome 'wrong'

Vital for LHC, rockets, airships - and the entire IT biz

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A hefty sci/tech body has said that the USA's current policy of selling off its enormous reserves of helium gas - which it keeps stored in a gigantic subterranean dome reservoir in Texas - is all wrong. This is partly because the plan is cocking up the global helium market, and partly because helium is vital for many activities dear to the hearts of Reg readers.

Specifically, the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) says, helium is of course vital for airships and blimps - unless you want to go for hydrogen, generally seen as rather too prone to exploding. Helium is also vital as a coolant in the field of superconducting magnets, and thus very important to enormous particle-smasher facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider and their exciting attendant possibilities of dimensional portal invasion or planetary soupening mishap.

Superchilled superconductor magnets are also used for less extreme scientific research, and famously for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans - popular both for medicine and radical brainprobe research.

The stuff is also widely employed for creating controlled atmospheres, crucial in chip and semiconductor fabrication and for making optical fibre - in other words the IT industry's hardware makers are heavily dependent on helium, too. So you can sit up there at the back.

Perhaps even more critically, helium is vital as the only suitable substance for the flushing out of liquid-fuelled rockets - and thus it is key both to the space programme and the US strategic missile forces. In fact this is the reason why the US government originally established its present vast stocks of the precious gas during the Cold War at the Federal Helium Reserve, stashing huge amounts in the Bush Dome underground rock formation in Texas.

However, even before then helium had been seen as militarily important, largely because of its use in airships and blimps. Famously, during the era of the great interwar dirigibles, the USA refused to supply Nazi Germany with helium. Such legendary vessels as the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg were thus hydrogen-filled, while the flying aircraft carriers of the US Navy enjoyed the use of helium - though ultimately this didn't seem to make them much safer*. At that time, all the world's helium came from certain American natural-gas fields, and production was almost entirely for military airships.

That seems to be a fairly clean sweep: airships, space rockets, nuclear missiles, IT hardware (including the iPad - ha!) enormous magnetic particle cannon dimension portals, MRI brainprobes - even deep-diving breathing gases. Helium is indeed important stuff.

It's also quite rare on Earth. Though the second-most-common element in the universe after hydrogen, small helium molecules are so light they escape into space once free in the atmosphere. Like natural gas, they can be trapped in underground rock formations - but they leak out a lot quicker. There wouldn't be any helium in or on Earth at all, goes the thinking, except that radiocative decay of uranium and thorium in the Earth's crust produces alpha particles. These are, of course, helium nuclei once they've slowed down. Thus there is a constant trickle of new helium being formed within the planet, enough that in some locations it builds up to extractable levels in subterranean gas pockets.

Helium is also pretty expensive to store for any length of time, which means that normal natural-gas drilling and refining operations, producing helium as a waste product, would normally throw it away if there was no customer just then. Once airships went away after WWII, this seemed set to happen quite a lot - which could have been bad news down the road for the US rocket programme once all the helium was gone: hence the establishment of the Federal Helium Reserve in 1960.

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