Well what the hell.
Thanks to a discussion I had with my mom yesterday concerning blue moons, I of course had the moon as the main star of my dream last night.
In the dream, it was the point in the future where our helium reserves had run out (real thing that’s happening, by the way). The top scientists had determined that mining the moon for helium was our most feasible option for replenishing the element, so we’d sent up a bunch of scientists/miners to do so. We’d set up these huge plots on the moon in which we mined the helium.
All was well and good, but as we started carting the helium back to earth, we realized that taking the element from the moon’s surface was actually eliminating the moon’s ability to reflect the sun. It had gotten to the point where the mining plots were resulting in huge black non-reflecting squares on the moon’s surface that could be seen from earth.
Representative pic (made with MS Paint so it’s crappy, but this is really what it looked like in the dream. Original from here):
I actually think the dream itself lasted like 2 minutes, but I remember feeling like we’d been waiting for days for the news to report whether the reflective nature of the moon would ever return in full or if we’d have to live with a patchy satellite.
I get visibly upset every time I see helium balloons now. There’s a helium shortage, people. Do you want a festive party or do you want to keep your MRI machines running?
I’d suggest hydrogen balloons as an alternative, but birthday candles + hydrogen encased in thin balloon film skin = mini Hindenburg time, so yeah.
Way back when these weekly science blogs started (or maybe it was before that?) I discussed the issue of the helium shortage we’re experiencing here on earth. Within the last year, thanks to this shortage, the price of the isotope helium-3 has risen from $150 per liter to $5,000 per liter. Nearly all of the helium on the planet exists within a single storage area within 250 miles of Amarillo, Texas. And that’s probably the least safe place for any rare commodity (‘cause Texans, man, Texas…). Helium experts (assuming such people exist) are afraid that we’ll run out of helium completely within 20 years if we remain at our current consumption rate.
Oh crap! What do we do?
Answer: mine the hell out of the moon.
After bombarding the moon in 2009, NASA scientists found—among other things—that the lunar soil is very rich in helium thanks to solar winds showering it for however long the moon’s been around (I think it’s like 4.4 billion years old or something, but don’t quote me on that). Not only does our natural satellite have helium, but it also apparently contains a bunch of rare earth elements (common-moon elements?), including europium and tantalum, both of which have applications in solar panels, hybrid cars, and other green energy applications. Right now China is the biggest exporter of such elements, but is currently reducing such exports, indicating the possibility of a shortage.
So yeah. It’ll be interesting if we ever decide to actually utilize the moon as an orbiting mine and if doing so would ever be a cost-effective procedure. The funniest part is the fact that NASA utilizes—guess what? helium—to pressurize space shuttle fuel tanks.
Firstly, I had no idea that there was a U.S. National Helium Reserve (and that it was in Arizona. At least that state’s good for something). Secondly, this reserve may not be around that much longer, as we’ve been squandering helium for so long that scientists (and helium reservoir researchers, assuming such people exist) fear that we may run out soon.
Yup. Like cheap crack, helium’s been being sold for way too cheap, causing it to be wasted. Which is kind of funny, considering the primary consumption of helium comes in the form of MRI scanners, rockets, and spacecraft, things that members of the general public usually don’t try to build in their backyard (unless I’m missing something). This means that the squandering must be occurring on a much higher level of business (damn you, NASA and party clowns!).
Anyway, helium on earth is formed from the decay of terrestrial rock and as a byproduct of nuclear fusion, though the latter is in such small quantities that it’s pointless to think of it as a helium source. So unless we plan on bringing the sun over for a visit any time soon, the stockpiles of this noble gas are going to be depleted. And I guess the U.S. still has the monopoly on helium (I say “still” because the same monopoly is why the Germans used hydrogen in the Hindenburg), so we’ll probably have to say goodbye to element #2 in the near future, seeing how the U.S. usually deals with these kinds of things.
Solution: stockpile those helium tanks used to fill party balloons. Or kill clowns. Or both.
Today’s song: Disgusting by Miranda Cosgrove