Sunday, May 24, 2015

High Times for Helium

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Though helium is the second most common element in the universe, the gas is hard to find in commercial quantities here on planet Earth. Exception: northeastern Arizona. The region supplied the U.S. with some of the richest deposits of helium in the 1960s and 1970s, and could do so again.

The world now faces a helium shortage, thanks to an ill-advised federal sale of its dwindling stockpiles begun in 1996. Helium cools MRI scanners, particle accelerators, and the chips in your smartphone. It cleans rocket tanks, keeps deep-sea divers breathing, and may yet fill our skies with airships. (Hydrogen, not helium, blew up the Hindenburg.)

As with shale oil, it takes fracking to mine helium. Miners feel lucky to capture the element in 1- or 2-percent concentrations, says state geologist M. Lee Allison. But the Holbrook Basin and the Four Corners area might yield concentrations of up to 8 percent.