Where Has All the Helium Gone?

A pair of medical professionals look at a patient’s MRI scan.

What is helium?  

Helium is an element that can be found on Earth and in space. On Earth, helium is present in gas form. It is made when other materials break down. In space, helium is created when particles in stars crash into one another. In fact, almost 30 percent of the Sun is made of helium! 

So, what’s the problem? 

It sounds like helium is plentiful on Earth and in space, right? However, helium has become hard to come by on Earth. It is made deep in the Earth when other radioactive materials break down. This process takes a very long time. It also takes a lot of effort to gather and purify helium gas. There are only a few places where helium can be collected, and those places are running low.   

Why do we care? 

You probably know that helium is used to fill balloons. Since it is much lighter than air, helium is used to fill balloons and make them float. Helium is used in many other products on Earth. It is also used to make cell phone chips, cables, microscopes, and computer hard drives work. It is the material used to clean rocket fuel tanks. Helium gas saves lives every day! It is the gas used in airbags, keeping us safe during car crashes.  

Another important use of helium is in MRI machines. These machines, or magnetic resonance imaging machines, let doctors visualize the brain. Any unusual tissues in the brain will be visible in an MRI image. This helps doctors diagnose and treat things like strokes, brain injuries, infections, and tumors. Without helium, the magnets in these machines wouldn’t work, and doctors would be unable to diagnose their patients.  

What Do You Think? Should we prioritize how we use helium in products?  

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