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To most people helium is the gas that makes children’s balloons float and voices sound like Donald Duck. In the last two years, however, helium became a focal point in the messy political struggle to downsize the federal budget. Last year, Congress and President Clinton acted to sell off the federally maintained helium reserve.

Critics have ridiculed the helium reserve as a white elephant left over from the days of World War I dirigibles. Representative Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) labeled the reserve a “poster child of government waste.” President Clinton originally called for the helium reserve program’s improvement as part of his “reinventing government” proposals. Ultimately, however, Clinton sided with congressional Republicans, labeling the reserve “an anachronism” and calling for its elimination.

In the swirling winds of political rhetoric, however, the government may have acted precipitously. Helium has unique properties that make it irreplaceable for science and industry. As the only element that does not freeze solid-remaining liquid even at just a fraction of a degree above absolute zero (-460 degrees Fahrenheit)-helium is essential for a variety of uses that require extreme cold. According to the American Physical Society, the reserve’s elimination will lead inevitably to U.S. shortages of helium and disrupt scientific and industrial research.

The United States is home to rich natural reserves of helium, mixed with methane in the gas fields of Texas and Wyoming. U.S. companies recover more than 3.3 billion cubic feet of helium every year. In 1996, the U.S. consumed 2.4 billion cubic feet of helium and exported another 970 million cubic feet of the gas. Because of the slim margin between production and consumption, a reserve is crucial to provide consistent supplies.

According to the American Geological Institute, the federal government uses approximately 300 million cubic feet (MCF) of helium a year on space, military, and civilian research. NASA, for example, has found helium essential for purging and pressurizing the fuel tanks of spacecraft because it is the only elemment that remains a gas at the extreme cold necessary to maintain the liquid hydrogen fuel used in many rockets and the space shuttle.

A host of industries have become similarly dependent on a consistent, expanding, supply of low-priced helium. Heavy users include superconductivity researchers, who use 172 MCF of helium a year. One of the major applications of superconductors-magnetic resonance imaging for medical diagnostics-consumes another 440 MCF. Gas-tungsten arc welding, taking advantage of helium’s inert nature, employs the gas to protect metal from oxidation, creating demand for about another 460 MCF. Helium is also valuable for detecting leaks from even the most microscopic cracks and pores in sealed containers such as fuel tanks and the “clean environments” of electronics fabrication facilities. Other emerging technologies that depend on helium include fiber-optic production, which demands an ultra-pure inert atmosphere, and Josephson junctions-liquid helium-cooled superconducting microswitches that are faster and more energy efficient than today’s semiconductors.

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