Price shocks waiting as US abandons helium business

05 Jul

Robert Richardson got a Nobel Prize for creating the first superfluid, a Bose-Einstein condensate comprised of chilled helium. But he started his talk at the Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting by announcing that he'd be focusing purely on science policy—policy related to his work, given that the policy in question is the one that governs much of the world's stockpile of helium.

Because of how the US is privatizing its stock of the gas, prices are artificially low, which is encouraging a pattern of consumption that may leave us without significant supplies of the gas midway through the century.

Inert but interesting

Why is that significant? Richardson started by describing helium's more interesting properties, which are key to its commercial use. These include its chemistry—his slide led with the text, "helium has no chemistry; it is a mere placeholder between hydrogen and lithium on the periodic table." Being completely inert may seem rather dull, but for industries that work with highly reactive materials, this absence of chemistry can be essential.

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