NAS: selling vast federal helium reserves is a mistake

Published 9 February 2010

Helium is used in airships, space rockets, nuclear missiles, IT hardware, enormous magnetic particle cannon dimension portals, MRI brain probes, and deep-diving breathing gases; U.S. annual helium use amounts to 650 million cubic feet; in the U.S. federal helium reserve in Texas, though., more than 35 billion cubic feet are stored; Congress wants this vast amount sold by 2015, scientists say it is a bad idea

A respectable scientific body has said that the U.S. current policy of selling off its enormous reserves of helium gas — which it keeps stored in a gigantic subterranean dome reservoir in Texas — is wrong. This is partly because the plan is cocking up the global helium market, and partly because helium is vital for many scientific and security-related activities.

Specifically, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) says, helium is vital for airships and blimps — unless hydrogen is used instead, but hydrogen is seen as rather too prone to exploding. Lewis Page writes that helium is also vital as a coolant in the field of superconducting magnets, and thus very important to enormous particle-smasher facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider.

Superchilled superconductor magnets are also used for less extreme scientific research, and for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans — popular both for medicine and radical brain probe research.

Helium is also widely employed for creating controlled atmospheres, crucial in chip and semiconductor fabrication and for making optical fiber — in other words, the IT industry’s hardware makers are heavily dependent on helium, too.

Perhaps even more critically, helium is vital as the only suitable substance for the flushing out of liquid-fuelled rockets — and thus it is key both to the space program and the U.S. strategic missile forces. Page notes that, in fact, this is the reason why the U.S. government originally established its present vast stocks of the precious gas during the cold war at the Federal Helium Reserve, storing huge amounts in the Bush Dome underground rock formation in Texas.

Even before then helium had been seen as militarily important, largely because of its use in airships and blimps. During the era of the great interwar dirigibles, the United States refused to supply Nazi Germany with helium. Such legendary vessels as the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg were thus hydrogen-filled, while the flying aircraft carriers of the U.S. Navy enjoyed helium — though ultimately this did not seem to make them much safer (USS Akron, USS Macon, and USS Shenandoah — three out of the four rigid airships to see service with the U.S. Navy — were all destroyed in disasters despite being helium filled).. At that time, all the world’s helium came from certain American natural-gas fields, and production was almost entirely for military airships.

Helium is thus an important material airships, space rockets, nuclear missiles,