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We’re Running Out of Helium

While the everyday person may be aware of gases like Helium and Phosphorus, it is likely only in a fairly limited capacity. In reality, both of these substances are vitally important to both industry and the environment, performing a number of tasks and requirements that have become essential to our modern lives.

At the moment, these gases have the following uses (amongst others):

Helium:

  • Cooling of superconducting magnets in MRI scanners
  • Filling of airships and balloons
  • Condensing Hydrogen and Oxygen for the production of rocket fuel
  • Added to Oxygen tanks for divers to enable easier breathing under water
  • Helium-Neon lasers contain this gas and are used for the reading of barcodes
  • Detecting of leaks in high-vacuum and high-pressure equipment, such as some vessels
  • Shielding of gases in the arc welding process for materials that can easily be contaminated by air
  • As a protection substance when growing Silicon and Germanium crystals and when producing Titanium and Zirconium
  • Dating of rocks that contain Uranium and Thorium
  • Used as a carrier gas in gas chromatography (a method of separating and analysing certain gases)

Phosphorus:

  • Used in matches as it has excellent fire starting capabilities
  • Its compounds are used as flame retardants as well, ironically
  • Lubricating at high temperatures due to its stability at such temperatures and its fire-resistant properties
  • Treating and coating of metals like Manganese, Zinc and Iron
  • Cleaning of metal surfaces
  • A reducing agent to deposit a chosen metal onto a surface. This is called Electroless Plating
  • Electroplating of Copper and Zinc
  • Treating of water to remove metal salts / ions
  • An important producer of fertiliser and pesticides, supporting the agricultural industries of the world

Because of the value of these gases they are important and extensively-used commodities in the modern world. However, their supply is running low, presenting the world’s governments with an important decision regarding the pricing, production and selling of these gases.

The United States of America, which owns more than 80% of the Helium in the world, is selling this gas at a rate far lower than its worth. Scientists have estimated that, at the current rate of selling, there is only enough Helium to last a little over two more decades. Helium is non-renewable and could only be replaced by the supply of this gas in the atmosphere, which would be difficult and astronomically expensive. It is the second-lightest gas in known existence and has the lowest boiling point. It is inert, which makes it far easier to use.

Phosphorus is fast being depleted by the use thereof in biofuels. This is another industry in which the United States exceeds all other nations in terms of use and commerce. As places like China make concerted efforts to save their Phosphorus supplies, its price rockets.

Protecting and conserving such gases is vital, on international, national and personal levels for natural and financial reasons.

Photo Credit: Milton Keynes Balloons

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This article was posted by Greenminded.co.za - South Africa Eco-Friendly Guide.

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