Simanaitis Says

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THIS HELIUM shortage is getting serious. A local supermarket had a “Temporarily Out Of Helium” sign—and you know what that means: Those of us with no particular vocalization talents won’t be able to sound like Donald Duck.


The 22 February 2013 issue of Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, had an article headlined: “Congress Tries Again to Head Off Looming Helium Crisis.”


Given Congress’s inability to head off just about any crisis, this Science article got my attention, quite independent of the Donald Duck aspects. Here’s the gist of it.

The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) controls the Bush Dome Federal Helium Reserve, a huge underground reservoir located northwest of Amarillo, Texas. The reserve has been there since 1925, originally a strategic supply for military airships; the geologic dome has been there for ages and has nothing to do with any late-coming Texans. There’s also a 420-mile pipeline snaking from the reserve up through Oklahoma into Kansas, along which six private helium refineries are located.


The Bush Dome Federal Helium Reserve is located at the BLM’s Cliffside Storage Field, northwest of Amarillo. The tri-state area is rich in natural gas—and helium.

By 1995, the reserve had accumulated a billion cubic meters of helium and a $1.4 billion debt. In 1996, Congress authorized the BLM to sell off the helium—but only until recouping that $1.4 billion.

This break-even point is expected by the end of the fiscal year, September 30, 2013. Thereafter, the BLM will no longer have authority to sell the remaining helium—unless Congress acts.

Currently, Bush Dome sales account for 42 percent of the crude helium consumed in the U.S. and 35 percent of global consumption. The rest comes from helium being a byproduct of natural gas production; Qatar, Algeria and Russia are the other global players.

There are bills in both the Senate and House of Representatives dealing with continuing Bush Dome sales. If a law is passed, it’s possible the reserve could be exhausted within 15 years. However, one thing being discussed is a controlled phase-out of the reserve, eventually allowing sales only to federal users (including those with government research grants).

What with airships not exactly our current line of strategic defense, this may not seem like a big deal. However, over the years, uses for helium have expanded like… like free helium (which rises and drifts off into space).


Helium shares the top row of the Periodic Table with hydrogen—and no other element.

Helium is the second lightest element in the universe. Only hydrogen is lighter, though helium has a unique property: It’s the only element remaining liquid at a temperature of absolute zero, -459.67 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of this, 32 percent of domestic helium consumption is in cryogenic applications. Its cooling is essential with superconducting magnets in MRI machines. Europe’s Large Hadron Collider (see exploits this property as well.


Domestic helium consumption, 2012. Source: U.S. Geological Survey.

Helium’s inert atmosphere is crucial in microchip and optical fiber production. This accounts for another 18 percent of consumption, as do its uses in purging and pressurizing applications (NASA uses a lot of it).

Arc welding uses helium as a shielding gas (13 percent of the total); and another 13 percent is used for balloons and voice fun. Leak detection uses 4 percent (helium diffuses through solids three times quicker than air). Deep-sea divers account for 2 percent (in fending off nitrogen narcosis).

Last, why does helium make people sound like Donald Duck?

Let me stress that Donald Duck talk does not depend upon helium. Laura Yahner, rest her soul, could talk like Donald Duck without it. There are several videos of other people demonstrating this; I recommend Formally called buccal speech (buccal: of or relating to the cheek), this non-helium variety is vocalization that doesn’t depend on the larnx (voice box).

By contrast, helium-induced Donald Duck speech exploits the low density of this gas compared with that of air. Some say it merely changes the voice’s timbre, not the pitch. But then these same authorities note that xenon-talk’s lower pitch is caused by the greater density of that gas.

I hope the helium shortage ends so we can clear this matter up. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013

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This entry was posted on March 13, 2013 by in Sci-Tech and tagged , , .
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