Did you know that many experts say that there is a shortage of helium? The U.S. has been the biggest supplier of liquid for some time and the National Helium Reserve houses a majority of the Earth’s helium. As the abundance of helium depletes though, some scientists are worried about how the growing demand and limited supply will affect us. According to recent reports, the demand for helium is expected to increase 2 to 3 percent as industries like electronics and healthcare increase their usage of it.

You may be wondering why we should be worried about running out of helium and what that has to do with magnets. Many people may remember breathing in the helium from party balloons and using it to make their voices sound funny. But, helium is even more useful and important to our economy than some may realize. It’s not just used for creating chipmunk voices. Helium is used in a number of important technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, Maglev trains, in breathing devices for deep sea divers and much more.

What is Helium?

Helium is a colorless and odorless noble gas element. It is one of the lightest gases and is the second most abundant element in the universe, behind hydrogen. However, it is not as available on Earth. Helium is lighter than air, which is why the gas leaves the planet’s atmosphere on a regular basis and why balloons filled with it will float up and away.

Why is Helium Important for Magnets?

Liquid helium is commonly used as a coolant in many of today’s technologies that use superconducting magnets. For instance, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)--also known as the largest particle accelerator in the world--uses 120 metric tons of liquid helium to remain in a superconducting state. This is the temperature at which some substances enter a state of zero electrical resistance, and to reach it, it requires extremely low temperatures. The particle accelerator has a ring of superconducting electromagnets 17 miles long. In order to operate it requires cooling to temperatures that are colder than outer space,  ‑271.3°C to be exact.

Helium and MRIs

The LHC isn’t the only device that requires both magnets and liquid helium cooling in order to work. MRIs also use superconducting magnets and are cooled with liquid helium. The average MRI machine needs about 1,700 litres of liquid helium to operate.
As the amount of helium is limited, some researchers are looking for alternatives to using it. Helium cannot be synthetically reproduced and it is now taken from below the Earth’s crust, which makes finding alternatives difficult. One company, Cryogenics, is trying to create types of magnets that require less helium to cool, and some other options are being explored by scientists. However, since helium is imperative to use many of today’s magnetic technologies, it is important that we value this precious element and how we use it.