Windsor

Helium shortages cause 'more than just losing a few smiles on a birthday'

"The public would be shocked to realize how important this element is to modern society," said assistant professor Scott Mundle with the University of Windsor.

Any modern technology requires helium to be produced

(Warren Rohner, flickr cc)

It's the second most abundant element in the universe — but prices have soared for helium and it's affecting more than just birthday parties.

"The public would be shocked to realize how important this element is to modern society," said assistant professor Scott Mundle with the University of Windsor.

"Anything that has modern technology needs helium to be produced," said Mundle, listing things like semi-conductors and circuits — parts found in cellphones, computers and more.

In its liquid state, helium is used to cool superconductors and to operate MRIs in hospitals. There are only 14 liquid helium plants worldwide. 

When access to helium is scarce, Mundle and a handful of other professors at the University of Windsor can't do their research. 

Scott Mundle, assistant professor at the University of Windsor, says helium is used in a lot more than people think.

"I go through about 800 cubic feet of helium a month," said Mundle. Last fall, depleted reservoirs meant the university could only get its hands on about 400 cubic feet of helium — and Mundle didn't get any. His research relies on helium to act as a carrier gas: it doesn't react or interact with what it's holding.

"If we had no helium as of this afternoon, we could end up in a very serious state," said Mundle. "It's more than just losing a few smiles on a birthday."

Uses for helium

  • Blimps, scientific balloons, party balloons.
  • Nitrogen-free atmosphere for deep-sea divers.
  • Used to study superconductivity.
  • Inert shield for arc welding.
  • Pressurize fuel tanks for deep sea divers.

Helium comes from a radioactive decay of other elements and migrates into natural gas deposits. 

"Luckily for Canadians, we have deposits of helium in Western Canada," said Mundle. He's been working with an "innovative" company who has been exploring helium deposits out west. 

"We developed a high-resolution approach to get precise helium values," said Mundle about his research. His lab is hoping the research helps bump Canada's production of helium to account for more than the current three-per cent of global supply.

"If oil was the black gold, this is the colourless gold," said Mundle.

There have been three helium shortages since 2006.

With files from Windsor Morning

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