In the universe as a whole , helium is one of the most common elements: hydrogen only surpasses him in terms of abundance .
However, the Earth is relatively rare. It is also one of the few items that gravity is not tied , so he escape into space.
"It is possible that if we dig in landfills world could recover all the other elements that have dispersed around the globe," said chemist Andrea Sella of University College London (UCL ) .
" But helium is unique. When it goes, we lose it forever."
Farewell to the magic
Helium has the lowest boiling point of any element, -269 ° C , only a few degrees above absolute zero ( -273 ° C).
This characteristic is essential for the superconducting magnets used in MRI scanners or MRI ( magnetic resonance imaging) , which must be subjected to very low temperatures to generate the magnetic fields necessary importance .
"In the future we will think : '!Can not believe people used to inflate helium balloons, when it is such a valuable and unique item ,'" predicts chemist at the University of Cambridge Peter Wothers , who has called complete with helium balloons for parties.
However, prohibit its use on balloons not only deprive adults and children the magical view of these balls floating colors, but it would end this favorite tradition of inhaling helium from a balloon and then talk in a shrill voice, the result the rapid movement of helium atoms.
But it might not be bad, and that grace can it cause dizziness, headaches and , in rare cases, even death.
The problem is that when inhaled , helium displaces oxygen from the lungs and in doing so deprives vital organs of this essential element .
The effect is more pronounced in the brain , which can not withstand more than 5-6 seconds before the person loses consciousness. Hence the danger of suffocation , particularly for young children.
Strategic reserve to business
The gas , which is formed by the decay of radioactive rocks in the crust , accumulates in deposits of natural gas and is collected as a byproduct of the gas industry .
United States is currently the world's largest supplier , with most of it stored near Amarillo, Texas, in the National Helium Reserve , which alone accounts for 35% of the current offer the world.
In 1925 was established as a strategic reserve to supply gas to U.S. aircraft , and after World War II provided for missiles and rockets coolant Army and NASA .
But since the mid- 90s, thanks to the growing demand for civil helium in semiconductor manufacturing and MRI scanners , among other things, U.S. has been recovering the cost of storage gas gradually selling on the open market .
Despite this , the price of helium has doubled in the last 10 years.
A world without helium
The alarmist stories to predict an action or another are commonplace pessimistic , but in this case the world could get an idea of what it could mean a shortage of helium.
U.S. semiconductor manufacturers knew that under the terms of a 1996 law , the reserve of helium U.S. was legally obliged to close the tap last month.
Much earlier, the alarm bells started ringing . Shortfalls in supply anyway had become routine.
" For most of the past year, we've been getting only about 80 % of the helium we buy ," says Rodney Morgan, the firm Micron Technology microprocessor U.S. .
But with the possibility that the supply was suspended , was such panic in the computer industry and others that legislation to prevent this crisis was included among a handful of proposals approved in haste by the U.S. Congress on the eve of recent closure of the U.S. government .
While "crisis of helium " was averted this time , it will take time for other countries to enter the market to supply the gas. The era of cheap helium, for now, ended .
Maybe it's good because, after all , if a resource is finite , we appreciate it.
What about helium balloons ?
"I suspect that the amount used in party balloons is very small compared to the other main uses ," says Wothers .
" But this is a rather trivial use of something we value a little more."