One of my friends, a physicist and diver, condemns the use of helium for non-commercial diving because of its scarcity. I didn’t give it too much thought until another friend said that as much as she would like to do technical diving, she feels that blowing bubbles of helium just for fun and personal gain is not ethical. It really got me thinking, so I did a bit of research.
The physical and chemical properties of Helium make it a perfect gas for a wide range of applications such as cooling super-conducting magnets. These magnets are very common and found in machines that range from the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva to MRI scanners in hospitals. It is also used for welding, and leak detection to test containers which will be subjected to high pressure or low vacuum for cracks and is used in the semiconductor industry (production of microchips and circuitboards).
Nobel laureate Robert Richardson explains "The Earth is 4.7 billion years old and it has taken that long to accumulate our helium reserves, which we will dissipate in about 100 years. “
Indeed, in response to the element's scarcity, the United States established a National Helium Reserve in 1925 as it thought that it would be strategically important to supplying gas to US airships, while after World War Two it provided coolant for missiles and rockets for the military and Nasa. in 1996 the Helium Privatization Act mandated that the Department of the Interior sell off all the stockpiled helium by 2015. “So the United States government started selling the equivalent of 40 percent of the world market of helium at a below-market price. but luckily in May 2013, the government extend the life of the reserve under government control.
Economist say that the price of a helium balloon should be $75 each due to its scarcity! Due to the low price of the gas it is cheaper for Nasa not to recycle the gas that they use.
In 2016 a research team from Oxford University developed a new approach to finding fields of the gas underground, and with the first use of the technique they've discovered a massive reserve in East Africa.
Independent experts have calculated a probable resource of 1.5 billion cubic meters in just one part of the rift valley. So that buys us another 50 years before we run out of Helium. However, this reserve has some uncertainty to it and whereas an alternative source of Helium is promising how much of it can actually be used and extracted still remains unknown. and 50 years isn’t really that much time.
Diving, most of which commercial, only accounts to 3% of the annual consumption. Trimix diving for fun will not deplete the world Helium reservoir but perhaps it is best we stay cautious and save it. Now, it doesn’t seem like a very big deal but we should keep in mind that technical diving is becoming more popular and accessible to divers which means that we can expect the demand for this gas to increase within the community.
To summarize: helium is finite, we don’t have much of it left although we might find more sources in the future. We use a very small fraction of it or our own personal enjoyment but maybe we shouldn’t use it for balloons and recreational diving so that we can get MRI scans when we are older and if we then find helium reserves then we can celebrate by blowing trimix bubble rings on our dives. In the meantime, the price of Helium used for personal enjoyment and recreation should reflect the scarcity of the gas.