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Running Low

Los Alamos scientists are working to preserve the nation’s dwindling supply of a helium isotope critical to scientific research, medicine, nuclear safeguards, and border protection
April 1, 2014
Running Low

The U.S. supply of helium-3 has been precipitously declining since the terrorist attacks of September 2001.

“Something has to give,” says Howard Menlove of Los Alamos’s Nuclear Safeguards Group. “Either a significant new source of helium-3 must materialize in a hurry, or we must develop an alternative to helium-3 in neutron detectors.” Such detectors remain, by far, the isotope’s largest-use application.

Helium shortages can be a real downer, and the world currently faces two of them. The better known shortage, with its price spikes and shortfalls affecting many industries (including party balloons), primarily concerns helium-4, the most abundant helium isotope in nature. Less well known, however, is a more severe shortage of the much rarer isotope helium-3. Essential for key scientific, medical, and national security applications, no one would dream of filling a balloon with it.

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