What will happen when the world runs out of helium?

4:57 min

Like many other materials helium has, since its discovery on earth in 1882, been a depletable resource. But few have thought about what will happen when the world runs out of helium.

Now scientists, including a Nobel Price winner, are worried that the world might run out of the noble gas sooner rather than later and that it will cause problems.

The concern is also that the helium left is sold at a much lower price than it should be as the result of a US government decision to sell out its stockpile of the gas by 2015, flooding the market with cheap helium.

At the start of the 20th century scientists discovered that they could extract helium as a by-product of natural gas and that it was commercially viable.

At the time it was also thought that the gas could be useful in the early days of flying when zeppelins where considered the newest and most modern technology.

The zeppelins where usually filled with hydrogen but the explosive gas was a serious risk and helium provided a cheap and non-flammable alternative.

The US government decided that helium was a strategically important resource for the military and started to store large quantities of the gas.

During the Second World War helium was used in the tires of large airplanes since it was lighter than oxygen and therefore allowed the planes to carry more fuel.

But after the Second World War new technology such as jet engines meant that helium lost its military applications and in 1996 the US government decided to sell off its helium reserves which lead to the market being flooded with cheap helium.

So there are two sides to this problem. First, that helium is being sold at a much cheaper price than it should and second, that the US, where most of the helium is produced today, will run out of the gas in only 25 years.

Radio Sweden spoke to post-doctoral researcher Mikael Höök about helium and what could happen if the world runs out.