Helium. The second most abundant element in the entire universe. And a limited natural resource here on Earth.
From the February 2011 print edition of National Geographic (page 22): the US Government’s helium reserve has dwindled from 32 billion cubic feet in 1991 to 19 billion cubic feet in 2008.
The United States’ (and the world’s) main source for helium has been from natural gas wells in Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Helium produced by radioactive decay in granitic rocks beneath the Great Plains seeps upward and is trapped in the overlying layers of sedimentary rocks along with methane produced within the sedimentary layers. Helium production from those fields has been declining.
The American Chemical Society has a page on the discovery of helium in natural gas in the late 1800s, a few years after the element was discovered through a study of spectral lines in light from the sun. According to the ACS page, townspeople in Dexter Kansas wished to celebrate the drilling of a “howler” of a gas well by lighting the gas flow from the well to create “a great pillar of flame from the burning well will light the entire countryside for a day and a night.” The problem was, the gas wouldn’t light. Further investigation by geologists and chemists revealed the existence of helium in the gas.
What does the downward trend in helium supply mean for the future? The National Geographic article suggests $100 for a helium party balloon.
Grace and Peace
P.S. I couldn’t find the brief article online.