[High-tech stuff like MRIs and particle accelerators rely on it, and the Sun is full of it, but we are running out – so what happened to all our helium?]
THE UNIVERSE WAS BORN as a roiling soup of energy about 13.8billion years ago in the event known the ‘Big Bang’. When things had cooled down a bit, the energy condensed into the first particles and, for the first few hundred million years or so, the entire Universe was a vast cloud of hydrogen and helium gas. Today, despite the best efforts of the stars to convert them into heavier elements, hydrogen and helium still dominate the mass of the cosmos.
Helium the second lightest, and second most common, element (behind hydrogen) still accounts for about 24 per cent of the mass of the entire Universe (that almost a quarter of everything everywhere). Yet here on Earth, it is incredibly rare – making up just 0.00052 per cent of our atmosphere – and our supplies are running out. By some estimates, the Earth’s helium reserves could be exhausted within just 30-50 years.
Now, we all know the ‘hilarity’ that ensues when a party balloon-toting joker uses the gas to perform dubious Micky Mouse impressions, but, believe it or not, helium has a serious side.