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We at El Reg's Special Projects Bureau have, over the last few months, been challenged by various readers as to why we're using helium to lift our audacious LOHAN spaceplane towards its stratospheric date with destiny.

Click here for a bigger version of the LOHAN graphicWhy not use hydrogen, they cry. It's easy to manufacture, cheap as chips, and – critically – not a finite resource whose depletion could have dire consequences for humanity.

We here at the Reg actually noticed the issues with the US government's Helium Reserve rather before most other news outlets, a couple of years back.

The US government got involved in helium production right back in the 1920s. Originally the helium was seen as strategically valuable for the purpose of inflating airships - for instance the US Navy's flying aircraft carriers of the 1930s, USS Akron and Macon, each of which carried a small force of biplane fighters which could be launched and recovered in mid-air.

The US helium supply was at the time the only bulk source of the valuable gas, and as all airship buffs know, America's refusal to supply Nazi Germany with the stuff led to the massive German Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin II ships being filled with cheap - but explosive - hydrogen instead. (US ships being filled with helium didn't seem to make them much safer, however: both the Akron and Macon were prematurely destroyed in disasters at sea.)

After the 1950s, the need to fill up US Navy airships (the service continued to operate a large fleet of blimps into the early Cold War era) gradually disappeared, but helium became even more important as it was crucial for use in hydrogen fuelled rockets - both for the space programme and ballistic missiles. Thus in 1960 (not 1925, as many people believe) the Federal Helium Reserve was set up: under this scheme helium produced in the US gas wells and not immediately needed was stored in a vast naturally-occurring underground reservoir, the Bush Dome in Texas.

As time has gone by, helium has started to be used for many other purposes: in particular cryogenics, but much is also used in industrial controlled environments and for welding.

By the 1990s, though, the reserve was $1.4 billion in debt after paying drillers to extract helium from natural gas which had not then been bought by anyone. The Cold War was over, and in any case US strategic missiles had moved to solid fuels and were no longer dependent on helium to operate (though hydrogen-fuelled space launch systems such as the Shuttle still were). Congress moved in to offload the liability by the end of 2014.

However, the politicians set the price of the reserve's helium at around 50 per cent of what it would have been on the open market, and since the facility still supplies over half of world demand (and comprises almost all the world stockpile) the result is an artificially low price which means there's "little incentive to conserve, recycle or find new sources of helium".

The result, in popular imagination, has been years of helium-fuelled kids' birthday parties, and other frivolities such as our own Paper Aircraft Released Into Space (PARIS) project, which blew eight cubic metres of the precious gas into the upper atmosphere.

In fact, though, such non-vital activites account for only a small percentage of helium use. The US National Academy of Sciences stated (vast pdf, free registration required) that as of 2010 the biggest uses were: cryogenics (for everything from the Large Hadron Collider to MRI scanners in hospitals); pressure/purge uses in hydrogen fuelled rockets (kerosene fuelled jobs such as the new SpaceX Falcon 9 use only a little by comparison); welding; and controlled environments for manufacturing such things as optical fibres and semiconductor chips. Add in mainly scientific applications such as chromatography and you've accounted for 94 per cent of all helium use.

Those who fear that there will be no helium for scientific research or MRI scanners in future should probably worry mainly about welding and hydrogen fuelled rockets: party balloons and non-hydrogen-fuelled space planes like ours just aren't an issue.

A couple of months back, in fact, we bought three cubic metres of gas for LOHAN testing. This is likely to have come from gas-rich Algeria, which built its first helium extraction plant in the mid-1990s and quickly became the world's number two producer.

So, we're not overly concerned that our audacious spaceplane projects are going to make much of a dent in Planet Earth's helium reserves, even if we're ultimately contributing in a very small way to the doomsday scenario of there being not a cubic centimetre of helium left on Earth within 30 years.

In conclusion, though, we'd like to offer the real reason we're not going to use hydrogen:

®

Further LOHAN resources:

  • New to LOHAN? Try this mission summary for enlightenment.
  • You can find full LOHAN coverage right here.
  • Join the expert LOHAN debate down at Reg forums.
  • All the LOHAN and Paper Aircraft Released Into Space (PARIS) vids live on YouTube.
  • For our SPB photo archive, proceed directly to Flickr.
  • We sometimes indulge in light consensual tweeting, as you can see here.

A tip of the hat to our LOHAN associates

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