If any member of the periodic table could be nominated as the patron element of fun and frivolity, it would have to be helium. Although this simple atom is inert, it has bonded permanently to the image of colourful balloons and all that they symbolize. For countless children around the world, holding a balloon by a string qualifies as nothing less than magical, an unforgettable encounter with some invisible presence that effortlessly defies gravity.

Yet the glitz and glamour of party balloons tend to overshadow helium’s more serious side, one that nevertheless has a great deal of its own magic to offer. Helium — a gas whose existence on Earth was confirmed by a paper in Science at the turn of the 20th century — improves the performance of airbags that inflate to save lives in the event of an automobile crash, since it expands more quickly and consistently than the many different molecules found in air. Magnetic resonance­ imaging, another potentially life-saving technology, would be a great deal more difficult without the remarkable feat of superconductivity made possible by the cooling power of liquid helium. An arc weld owes its unrivalled strength to the sterilizing intervention of helium, which prevents any contamination from air as two metals are joined. Helium also safeguards the chemical purity of delicate electronic chips during manufacturing.

Established aircraft manufacturer Lockheed­ Martin is thinking beyond wings as it considers the design of helium-lift airships­ that would serve as cargo vessels­ for the 21st century.

Established aircraft manufacturer Lockheed­ Martin is thinking beyond wings as it considers the design of helium-lift airships­ that would serve as cargo vessels­ for the 21st century. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin Aeronautics

Most magical of all, perhaps, is the fact that this small atom can seep through container linings that hold most other gases; whenever helium makes its way into the atmosphere, it slips Earth’s surly bonds and escapes into space. This capability highlights the great challenge of working with the element: as useful as it turns out to be, we can lose it as easily as a child letting go of the string on a balloon. Even more significant, this valuable resource turns out to be as non-renewable as they come. 

The reality is, helium is extremely rare on the Earth’s surface. We only have access to any of it because of radioactive decay by uranium and thorium contained in our planet’s crust. But even this output vanishes unless it happens to be trapped in a geological formation that prevents it from dissipating. 

Bo Sears is on a mission to seek out those formations and shore up our helium supply. Sears, a Dallas entrepreneur, worked for an oil and gas exploration firm founded by his father, which in the past 10 years has focused more closely on helium recovery. He is now president of Weil Helium, a subsidiary of another resource exploration firm, and spends much of his time seeking out this element in abandoned gas wells whose contents may consist of as much as two percent helium by volume. “I’ve identified areas like that all over the mid-continent,” Sears says, pointing to projects in Utah, Montana and even Saskatchewan, where helium was produced in significant quantities during the 1960s and 1970s. Sears adds that finding such properties is the easy part; developing projects with helium as the primary target is tougher going. “Signing helium deals 10 years ago was a lot harder than it is today. You had to convince somebody — usually an oil and gas operator — to spend the same amount of dollars as you would on a traditional well to go after 1.5 percent of the total gas stream. Usually you’d get a door slammed in your face or a roll of the eyes.”

By way of educating the business community and others about the evolving state of helium production, Sears has written the book Helium: the element and its industry, detailing the history of how this element’s scientific and industrial value has shifted over time and how the commercialization of government stockpiles of helium has created an unprecedented market for this commodity. That market is driving his exploration efforts but it is also raising awareness of our ultimately limited supply of this stuff. 

A growing realization of the precarious state of helium production has been steadily affecting the way many helium-dependent enterprises handle this valuable input. Canada had a starring role in the very first of those enterprises, the advent of the helium airship. Germany introduced the first hydrogen-filled zeppelins early in the 20th century. During the First World War, British incendiary bullets failed to ignite the zeppelin in the battlefield. This prompted the Brits, who mistakenly assumed the German zeppelins contained helium not hydrogen, to seek a source of helium that would sustain its own fleet of airships. This task fell to University of Toronto physicist, John McLennan, who worked with the French Air Liquide Company to develop a dedicated plant for extracting helium from natural gas wells in Ontario and Alberta. 

A parallel research venture in the United States added even more to the available supply of helium for the war effort, but in both cases the resulting per-unit cost turned out to be far higher than hydrogen, which remained the gas of choice for airships despite its incendiary character. Nor was the airship able to compete with airplanes, whose growing sophistication for reconnaissance and attack made them far more attractive to military planners. After the war, however, airship design also continued to evolve, so much so that the US introduced the Helium Conservation Act in 1925 to establish formal government control over what was regarded as a highly strategic resource.

In the absence of fundamental transportation infrastructure like ocean ports and year-round roads, industrial development in Canada’s remote northern communities could benefit significantly from the unique capabilities of airships.

In the absence of fundamental transportation infrastructure like ocean ports and year-round roads, industrial development in Canada’s remote northern communities could benefit significantly from the unique capabilities of airships. Photo Credit: Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd.

At that time, the future of helium appeared to be entwined with a future where the skies would be populated with a variety of dirigibles carrying passengers and cargo. But, just as the First World War had opened up this vision, the Second World War shut it down. The frenetic pace of airplane development driven by this war effort secured a popular perception of these vehicles as the only way to fly. After the war, there was a significant cadre of veterans who had become trained pilots and were interested in the high-speed excitement of operating airplanes. The fuel to run those aircraft was cheap and the government was actively building aerodromes to accommodate them. Airships and the infrastructure necessary to their operation, for their part, were all but forgotten. 

“It’s really been a 70-year hibernation of this technology,” says Barry Prentice, a business professor at the University of Manitoba with an interest in transportation economics and the economics of airships in particular. Prentice has acted on this interest by helping to create ISO Polar Airships in 2005, a not-for-profit research institute to make the business and engineering case for employing airships to solve key Canadian problems. He regards supplying our northern regions as the foremost of those problems. Skyrocketing fuel prices and a scarcity of pilots has made small aircraft far more expensive to operate than they were after the Second World War. Yet Prentice’s research shows that’s how about three-quarters of the food supply reaches Canada’s northern communities. Meanwhile, the season for winter ice roads, which carry the bulk of heavy goods to many of these isolated areas, has been steadily shrinking over the past few decades. Not surprisingly, these observations also explain why the cost of living and the cost of industrial projects are so exorbitant in the North. For Prentice, they also explain why the job of delivering food and heavy equipment to these places would be well suited to an airship.

“Yes, it’s expensive to fill an airship with helium,” he says. “But then you have the gas and you’re not paying anything for your lift other than that. So if you’re comparing the lift of an airship versus an airplane, even if the helium’s expensive it’s still much cheaper than burning gasoline to keep you in the air.”

Prentice insists that this uniquely Canadian role may be the killer app that finally restores airships’ prominent place in global aviation. In principle, these vehicles could compete effectively with road, rail, or ocean freighter traffic anywhere in the world, but potential investors in airship operations are more comfortable putting their money into established modes of transport. When it comes to Canada’s Northern and Arctic regions, on the other hand, these established modes are either absent or in trouble; airships begin to look like a viable alternative. 

Prentice is far from alone in his enthusiasm for these vehicles, as evidenced by a number of companies around the world that are marshalling innovations in aerodynamic design and materials. At first glance, the imagery associated with this emerging sector may look downright romantic: liners conveying cruise passengers over all manner of exotic destinations; hard-working cargo vessels hoisting equipment into otherwise inaccessible locales; rescue vehicles that can quickly negotiate forbidding terrain or seething oceans to save lost souls. Each of these possibilities is grounded in the realities of current transportation markets, which means it might be decades before anyone can scrape together the capital and customers to support a flying cruise liner. In the meantime, more focused airship traffic could find its way into military or industrial niches. 

Helium is key in arc welding, as its sterilizing properties prevent contamination in the air from affecting­ the integrity of the metals­ undergoing bonding.

Helium is key in arc welding, as its sterilizing properties prevent contamination in the air from affecting­ the integrity of the metals­ undergoing bonding. Photo Credit: US Air Force

British-based Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) is definitely counting on the latter. According to Chris Daniels, the company’s head of partnerships and communication, the cutting edge of aviation technology is no longer defined by speed or power, as was expected during the interlude when airlines tried to introduce supersonic transport for commercial passenger traffic. Instead, the defining quality of contemporary aviation potential is economic efficiency, a qualification where slow, gentle, elegant airships and hybrid aircraft can compete. In this context, the relative scarcity of helium might be regarded as a limiting factor. Daniels puts the matter in a different perspective, referring to his company’s massive 92-metre-long craft, the Airlander 10, which can carry up to 10 tonnes. HAV sells this airship for $40 million, but the cost of the helium it contains is $400,000. “In the grander scale of things, it’s peanuts,” Daniels says. “The amount of helium that lighter-than-air craft use around the world — if you include party balloons, weather balloons, anything that floats in the air — it’s 15 percent of the global helium market; a fleet of 100 Airlanders would use less than one percent of the world’s annual production.”

That proportion is dwarfed by the market share for MRI scanning, which is roughly 40 percent. This technology takes advantage of helium’s ability to remain liquid at just a few degrees above absolute zero, temperatures where certain materials become superconductors, able to maintain the powerful magnetic fields used to generate images. Although this crucial component has always been treated carefully, many medical imaging centres are installing additional equipment to prevent helium from escaping during the process, an investment that will only become more attractive as the price of helium rises to reflect its increased use and relative scarcity. 

As for where the rest of this market may be heading, Sears cautions that there could be interesting times ahead. He points out that Qatar has now replaced the US as the world’s largest exporter of helium, a reflection of this commodity’s arrival in the global economy. There may be a great deal more of this element to be found in the decades to come, although ultimately we must come to terms with our planet’s finite supply. And should we somehow wean ourselves from a dependence on natural gas for energy, helium would continue to serve as gaseous gold, making it worthwhile to open up those abandoned wells. 

In the meantime, our childhood joy of balloons may one day find even greater expression in skies dotted with helium-filled airships. For now, the magic of helium animates a great deal of the technology around us, even if — like the gas in those balloons — we cannot see it.