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Published: December 2010
Helium is an inert gas and is the lightest of all gases except hydrogen. Helium is produced in the natural environment continually by the radioactive decay of uranium and escapes into the atmosphere. Since the concentration of helium in air is very minimal, extraction of helium from air is not economically viable. Commercially, helium is available from natural gas deposits. Helium is typically extracted from helium-bearing natural gas by a low-temperature separation process that removes the crude helium (containing mostly nitrogen and helium) as a gas from the natural gas portion (mainly hydrocarbons). Helium is also extracted from the vent gases at some liquefied natural gas (LNG) processing plants.
About 65–70% of world helium production capacity is located in the United States; however, commercially significant quantities of helium are also currently produced in Algeria, Russia, Qatar, Australia and Poland. A small unit may also operate in China.
The following pie chart shows world production of helium:
Gaseous helium is used in welding applications such as pressurizing rocket fuel tanks and in supersonic wind tunnels. It also provides an inert atmosphere in semiconductor chip manufacture and optical fiber production. Helium is mixed with oxygen to eliminate nitrogen so that deep sea divers do not suffer from nitrogen narcosis. Other popular applications include use as a lift gas in blimps and balloons. Helium is also used in space shuttle launches where hot gases and cold liquid fuels are separated by cavities that are continuously purged by helium. Since helium is an effective heat conductor, it is also used in heat transfer applications. Liquid helium is used primarily in medical and research applications, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), as well as to study and create superconductive magnets.
World demand for helium in 2010 is estimated to be on the order of 6.4 billion standard cubic feet (100–110 billion cubic meters) and the United States is the world's largest producer and consumer. With demand increasing globally, the United States, which once consumed over 50% of worldwide production, has dropped to below 50% in the past few years, and is expected to drop even further, to about 43% by 2013.