US runs low on critical natural resource (not oil)

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by DAVID SCHECHTER

Bio | Email | Follow: @davidschechter

WFAA

Posted on May 18, 2011 at 10:15 PM

Updated Thursday, May 19 at 2:52 AM

AMARILLO — It's a natural resource found in Texas.

It is critical to our national security.

And we're running out of it.

No, we're not talking about oil.

It's helium.

Texas leads the nation in the production of helium, a gas that's about more than balloons and unnaturally high voices; it is absolutely essential to modern science.

"For me, it's instrumental in understanding the origin of the universe,” said SMU physicist Stephen Sekula.

Helium is a by-product of natural gas drilling, and its super cooling properties are unrivaled in nature.

It's essential to MRI machines, exploring space with high-powered rockets, and cooling the next generation of nuclear power plants.

Without helium, Sekula's work would not be possible. He is one of thousands of scientists at the atom-smashing Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, where they're trying to understand the forces that created our world.

"Without liquid helium, we just can't build these experiments, and we can't answer these big questions,” Sekula said.

About one-third of the world's helium production starts in a massive underground dome owned by the federal government in Amarillo.

It's the government's policy to sell off almost all of its helium in the next five years. But that will leave the nation dependent on importing an important natural resource from a familiar international hot spot — the Middle East.

"These aren't particularly friendly or cooperative sources. That puts us in further jeopardy,” said Chip Groat, a professor at the Energy and Earth Resources Department at the University of Texas at Austin.

Groat co-authored a 2010 report by the National Academy of Sciences. It asks Congress to change course and conserve the helium in Amarillo instead of racing to sell it off by 2015.

"It's a program that's essentially adrift," Groat said.

Critics say the Amarillo helium plant should not be a government program, but rather a regulated industry. That would allow it to make decisions about conservation and market forces without an act of Congress.

Which is, essentially, what they're waiting for in Amarillo.

"It could last a lot longer if Congress determines we should produce or sell less,” said John Hamak, an assistant field manager with the Bureau of Land Management.

There are gas drillers in Amarillo who want to sell their helium to the government to help fill up the underground dome. But under law, the government cannot buy it; so that helium is simply released in the air and floats off into space.

That kind of inefficiency worries scientists like Groat.  "I think it's more important right now than the public realizes, and more important than the Congress realizes,” he said.

Texas — not the Middle East — still has the helium the nation needs if we act wisely, and realize it's more than birthday parties that are at stake.

E-mail dschechter@wfaa.com

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