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What happens if the world runs out of helium?

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Quick Answer

At today's rate in 2015, the world will run out of helium in 25 to 30 years, and that means much more than losing birthday balloons. Helium is critical to operating medical equipment, electronics and even NASA technology. The trouble is that once helium is used, it's gone, and there is a limited supply on Earth.

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What happens if the world runs out of helium?
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Full Answer

The most important quality of helium is its low boiling point. In other words, it works incredibly well for cooling electronics that heat up very fast. Helium is crucial for MRI machines and liquid crystal displays, or LCD screens. It is also used in fiber optics, which makes it an important part of the telecommunications industry.

NASA even uses helium for its rockets. Airships use it for cooling, and it's mixed with other gases to create air tanks for deep-sea diving. Perhaps most ominously, helium helps cool nuclear reactors (although it's certainly not the only method).

The trouble, Cornell University professor of physics Robert Richardson says, is that helium is cheap. An act passed by congress in 1996 keeps helium at a fixed price - regardless of how rare it becomes. This means that organizations that buy and use helium don't make an effort to recycle it. Economically, they don't really need to.

Richardson says that it has taken 4.7 billion years for Earth to amass its amount of helium, but once its released into the atmosphere, it's gone forever, and there's no way to chemically manufacture it or replicate it. Eighty percent of the world's helium supply comes from an underground mine in Amarillo, Texas - but Richardson speculates that that supply will be gone by the middle of the century.

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