The Hindenburg Disaster was made possible by a U.S. embargo of helium supplies to Germany. Due to the emptying of the reserve at Amarillo, the stage has been set for a strategic and economic disaster.
Remember when sucking helium out of a balloon to make your voice squeak like a cartoon was funny? That may become a bitter, expensive joke in your lifetime.
Helium. Element number two. There’s a finite supply, but the biggest supply is in Texas.
Correction: Was in Texas.
Helium has become a symbol for the abandonment of science and reason for a weird faith-based free market religion. I support free markets, but not to the illogic extremes of absolutism.
The U.S. government set up the National Helium Reserve in Amarillo 87 years ago. The original goal was to supply military airships and then, commercial airships. One reason the Hindenburg became the Hindenburg tragedy is because the United States had an embargo against Germany, thus cutting off its source of helium. Thus, the Hindenburg was hydrogen-filled.
The Amarillo reserve became the world’s largest.
The reserve expanded during the Cold War and the Space race to ensure a supply of liquid helium as coolant necessary to create rocket fuel. A 425-mile pipeline to the reserve connected it from sources as far away as Kansas. The helium was recovered and shipped through the pipeline to 12 miles northwest of Amarillo to be injected into a geologic formation called the Bush Dome reservoir in the Cliffside gas field.
Then the great privatization movement began. You know the drill: First comes the propaganda that the government is inept, whether it is or not. Second comes the propaganda that the private sector is more efficient and responsible, whether it is or not. Third comes the propaganda of a solution: this sector of the government should be privatized, whether it should or not. Fourth, the private entities line up for “kaching.”
That’s how strategic concerns are replaced with profit-driven concerns. Thus, legislation was passed in the 1990s; the helium reserve began to be emptied in 2005. During this same period, demand for helium rose, the cost of extracting helium rose and the price more than doubled.
Several scientists have warned that draining the helium from Amarillo is short-sighted not just for technical reasons, but for the longer term economy. Helium is used in nuclear magnetic resonance, mass spectroscopy, welding, fiber optics and computer microchip production.
Helium is generated from the decay of radioactive substances. Helium was either created from the formation of the solar system, or as naturally-occurring fission or transmutation products of uranium and thorium.
That means all the helium on earth now was created over 4.5 billion years. As a result, the product is non-renewable, and irreplaceable. There are no economically feasible alternatives to helium. There are no comic book heroic technological innovations to solve that problem.
The government auction of helium in Amarillo is scheduled to be completed by 2015. That means the U.S. will have to import helium from the remaining suppliers of helium in the world: The Middle East and Russia. The world itself may run out of helium by 2050.
Sound familiar? I think we’ll look at the emptying of Amarillo’s stockpile with something more serious than the regret of nostalgia.
Three years to go.