An active underground well head at the Cliffside Field Facility of the federal helium reserve, which produces roughly 30 percent of the world's helium, near Amarillo, Texas, Dec. 11, 2012.

Mark Holt, NYT

Letter of the Day (Jan. 9): Helium

  • January 8, 2013 - 6:22 PM

A recent article ("As helium supply shrinks, its price hits the stratosphere," Jan. 7) omitted some important information.

First, helium atoms move at high velocities because they are so light. Their average speed is in fact above the "escape velocity" needed to leave the Earth's gravity pull, so when they reach the upper atmosphere, where there are few collisions with other molecules, they will go off into space.

Second, most natural gas contains a small percentage of helium. This means that burning natural gas releases significant quantities of helium that will vanish into space, never to return.

The original purpose of the Strategic Helium Reserve was to ensure a plentiful supply of helium for use in surveillance Zeppelins, a strategic application in wartime.

When Congress finally noticed that the Zeppelins were no longer used, it seized on the opportunity to "privatize" the helium reserve. The result of this decision is that we will stop dumping Earth's supply of helium into space only when someone can realize an attractive short-term profit by doing so.


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