Nobel-prize winning physicist Robert Richardson warns that the inert gas is being sold off far too cheaply -- so cheaply there is no incentive to recycle it -- and world supplies of the gas, a vital component of medical MRI scanners, spacecraft and rockets, could be gone in just decades, Britain's The Telegraph reported Monday.
About 80 per cent of the world's reserves are in the U.S. Southwest at the U.S. National Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas, but a recently passed law has ruled the reserve must be sold off by 2015 regardless of market price, Britain's Independent said.
"As a result of that act, helium is far too cheap and is not treated as a precious resource," Richardson says. "It's being squandered."
Helium is created by the radioactive decay of terrestrial rock and most of the world's reserves have been collected as a byproduct from the extraction of natural gas.
Liquid helium is critical for cooling infrared detectors and nuclear reactors. The space industry uses it in sensitive satellite equipment and spacecraft, and NASA uses helium in huge quantities to purge the potentially explosive fuel from its rockets.
Despite the critical role the gas has in modern technology, it is being depleted as an unprecedented rate and reserves could dwindle to virtually nothing within a generation, Richardson says.
"The Earth is 4.7 billion years old and it has taken that long to accumulate helium reserves, which we will dissipate in about 100 years," he says. "One generation does not have the right to determine availability for ever."