字幕列表 影片播放 列印英文字幕 Take a look at this balloon, and this one and this one. They're all filled with helium. It's the second most abundant element in the known universe. So why then are you reading headlines like this one and this one and this one about how the Earth is running out of helium? When Party City announced its financial results for the first quarter of 2019, the company also announced it would be closing 45 of its 870 stores. Party City said the closures were unrelated to the helium shortage but at the time CEO James Harrison said a lack of helium was hurting its balloon business and as a result its bottom line. It's not just Party City bearing the brunt of the helium shortage. A lot of big industries have a lot at stake-from tech to health care. Here's why the world's supply of helium is running short. First a brief history lesson. Helium was identified in 1868 by French Astronomer Pierre Janssen, almost unintentionally. While looking at the sun's rays during a solar eclipse, Janssen noticed a strange yellow light coming from the surface of the sun. It was something we didn't have a name for yet. The name came when British astronomer Norman Lockyer also observed the same yellow light being emitted. He named the newly-discovered element helium, after Helios, the Greek god of the sun. And while party balloons may be the most well-known use of helium, it's not the most common. Helium is a noble gas which means it's nonreactive, nonflammable and on Earth it has no color or smell. In its liquid form, Helium can reach extremely low temperatures without freezing which makes it incredibly useful for many scientific purposes. Phil Kornbluth has been in the helium business for over 35 years and knows how useful it can be. Liquid helium is used as refrigerant for the superconducting magnets that are basically the guts of an MRI scanner. So that's the largest application and the one that many people don't realize that there's helium involved when they're getting an MRI scan. It cleans fuel tanks on rockets, it's used in optical fibers to bring internet to the masses, to manufacture semiconductors and a lot more. So what's at the root of the helium shortage? The shortage is mostly due to the fact that existing source of helium have been in decline or have been depleted partially. So the shortage is really more about supply going down as opposed to demand going up. Helium might be incredibly abundant in the universe but it's rare on Earth and extremely difficult to capture. It's a non-renewable resource and it's mostly found in underground chambers where radioactive decay causes uranium to release helium into natural gas reserves over millions of years. Oil companies extract the helium through a process known as fractional distillation, where natural gases are broken down into their individual elements to isolate the helium. But once the companies have the helium it's nearly impossible to store it without leaking. And once the helium is in the atmosphere it easily escapes into space. The United States has been the largest producer of helium since 1925, thanks to a massive reserve found between Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas—fittingly named the Federal Helium Reserve. Recently though, the tiny nation of Qatar has grown to become the second largest exporter of helium in the world. But recent political tensions and embargoes in the region forced the state-owned natural gas company, RasGas, to shutter its helium plants in 2017 thereby choking the global supply chain. Tensions have since cooled but RasGas merged with QatarGas in 2018 and limitations still exist for the region. The embargo of Qatar remains in place and the supply chain from Qatar is longer, more costly and less reliable than it would be without that embargo. This is not the first helium scare in recent years. In 1996, the United States passed the Helium Privatization Act. It ordered the U.S. government to sell off the entire Federal Helium Reserve. The plan was to sell the helium at a fixed price rather than at auction. This ensured that the gas would sell quickly but most likely be used wastefully. Nearly two decades later in 2012 experts warned of dire consequences due to dwindling helium supplies. So a year later Congress passed the Helium Stewardship Act, which required helium to be sold at auction rather than at a fixed price. This won't do anything to stop the intended depletion of the Federal Helium Reserve which is still expected to close down production in 2021. In the past, new helium reserves were discovered by accident but geologists are beginning to research new ways to find helium reserves under the earth's surface. There is a lot of exploration going on in the Four Corners area of the southwestern United States and there is also some exploration going on in Saskatchewan Alberta Montana. I think the 2020s is will be a better decade were for helium supplies than the 2010s to be honest. The goal is to keep MRIs powered up, the Internet flowing and your party balloons from falling flat.