Understanding the Impending Helium Crisis

by Anupum Pant

There is too much Helium?

Helium is the second most abundant element in the observable universe, present at about 24% of the total elemental mass. Helium is also the second lightest element. So, 24% by mass is too huge a mass for a single light element. It equates to a measure that is probably millions of times more than what humanity could use up in millions of years. Close to about 12 times the mass of all the heavier elements combined, this element will almost never run out. But, that is only when we talk about the universe. Back in Earth, it is completely a different story.

Helium sources for us

On Earth, Helium is relatively rare. It amounts to only a 0.00052% volume of the earth’s atmosphere. Although 0.00052% is not too less, you also can’t consider it as an abundant element. Moreover, extracting Helium from air is almost 10,000 times more costly than fractional distillation (mentioned in the next paragraph). So, all that Helium in air is nearly useless to us till better methods of extraction are invented.
Thankfully, Helium is also present under the surface of the earth. The source of this kind of deposit is, radioactive decays which take place down there. It mixes with the natural gas and is lost to space, if released into the atmosphere. It is separated from natural gas using a process called fractional distillation – The best process to make Helium.

The largest known underground reserve estimated to contain about 10 billion cubic feet of Helium is a federal reserve (mostly under Texas and Kansas). For years US reserves had been the largest global suppliers of Helium (90%). Even today, these reserves contribute to more than 35% of the total global supply. The price of Helium coming from this source has remained almost unchanged for a long time. While during the same period (10 years) privately held Helium prices have tripled. The gap in prices is increasing every day, creating a big distortion in the market.

Helium Usage

Uses of Helium range from manufacturing smart phone screens (all LCD screens) to optical fibers (Internet cables) to health care (MRI scanners) to scientific research etc. [Uses of Helium]

The Problem

Since Helium has been made artificially cheap due to the Helium privatization act, it is popularly believed to be a cheap gas and is wasted a lot. Instead of using it up for important things, we consume it by filling up party balloons, distort voices and other entertaining activities. In fact, the warning issued by the Nobel Prize winner Robert Richardson that Helium could be depleted within a generation, seems to have had no effect on us. We still continue to waste a lot of Helium, release it into the air and keep losing it forever. Not many realize that it is a non-renewable resource.

We have almost reached a crisis already, but it was temporarily averted by the congress. In the future, after about 6-7 years, when the Federal Reserve stops supplying it (at below-market prices), it could be a big problem. I’m not very optimistic about market adjusting within such a small span either. In under a decade, we’ll probably see smart-phone prices, optical fiber prices and health care (MRI scans etc.) prices shoot up precipitously due to this artificial market distortion, if we do not start using Helium properly.

Plasma Speakers

by Anupum Pant

Not many would have heard of speakers other than those which use magnetic materials to produce sound. But if you still haven’t heard about Plasma speakers or ionic plasma tweeters, you are really missing something great. Read on for more.

About Plasma Speakers

I talked about sound a few days back and mentioned that it is something that propagates through a medium due to pressure changes. Normally, magnetic speakers create these pressure waves by moving a diaphragm with the help of a varying magnetic field. But, plasma speakers do this by varying the air pressure through a high energy electric arc. This arc is produced by ionizing the gas present in between two terminals (ionizing reduces the electrical resistance of air which creates a visible arc).

These speakers use an extremely high energy arc which also increases the temperature of surrounding volume of gas to very high levels. So, before learning anything about them, the first thing you have to know is that these seemingly harmless things can kill you.

The Dangers

Plasma speakers are not toys. Old men, people with heart problems, kids etc should stay away from them. Even if an adult is handling them, they need to be informed about what they are doing first. It is better to have someone close who knows well, how these things work. Although the commercially available speakers are fairly safe, DIY kits can prove to be fatal. The kind of dangers involved with these devices:

1. The electric discharge – Think of it as a lightning. The dangerous high voltage device has the potential to kill you, if any of your body part comes close. Keep all bodily parts away.

2. Gas danger – The constant supply of ozone used for this project can actually be much more dangerous than the electric arc. Ozone used in this project, silently increases in concentration which can be fatal. It is important to keep the room well ventilated.

A few more things about them

Invented by WIlliam Duddells in the year 1900 these are not speakers, but tweeters. That means, that there will be no window cracking bass that is going to come out of them. Unlike magnetic diaphragms, the arcs have no weight and are able to produce a very crystal clear sound by moving back and forth very quickly. See the video below.

They work by changing temperature inside the gas chamber which makes them go red to purple as the frequencies of a song change. However, an un-modulated arc will just produce noise, something like you hear at first in the video. Also, they need a constant supply of Helium and Ozone coming into the chamber. These gases get ionized inside to produce the arc.

[Read this for more history]

Where can I get them?

In 1970 Magnat used to produce them, but they no longer produce plasma speakers now. The point is, they were the pioneers in bringing this to the masses.
Acapella sells them for an eye-popping price of 23000$. These costly ones are revered for their sound quality.
Other DIY kit can be bought for as low as 100$ [here]
Build one on your own for cheaper. (if you are willing to risk your life) [tutorial here]


Harnessing The Power of Nature – Biological Data Storage

by Anupum Pant

The present storage technology

Storage technology has come long way from the year 1956 when IBM, the massive corporation started pushing this technology. Its journey started with data storage densities of orders as low as 40 bits per square inch in 1956 (RAMAC 350). This effort from their side indeed brought in great results and IBM could set a record of density record of 14.3 billion bits per inch, by the year 2000.

Today, in the year 2013, most HDDs (Hard Disks Drives) are able to store with densities of around 500 Billion bits per square inch; technology at this level has brought Terabyte sized HDDs to our computers. The research being done on increasing density of data is still a bustling area. As a result, we often see news breaking in with breath-taking new storage technologies almost every month.

Latest Stories

Just a few months back, using a technique called nanopatterning a team from Singapore was able to show 3300 billion bits per square inch. That is almost 6 times the density of a normal HDD. It means that a 1TB HDD of present size could hold 6TB if this could come to manufacturing units.

Seagate, in another story, promised data densities of the order 1TB per square inch (8000 billion bits per square inch) within the next decade. Which would enable hard drives of up to 60 TB in capacity.

A similar thing has happened to compact disks. From CDs to DVDs to Dual Layer DVDs to BluRays and several other storages that didn’t last – from zip drives to holographic storage. The data storage densities have improved dramatically.

Is it enough?

Although, our present ability to store a lot of data in small physical spaces is enough for now, to meet the future demands we will need to keep progressing with an unbelievable rate. The fact – physical storage is reaching its limit gradually, could bottleneck our progress in the future.

Biological Storage Devices

The exact storage concept used in amazing natural systems like the human brain and DNA has remained elusive for decades now. To keep up with the rapid pace of development it is important that we step up our work in this area. I think, the answer to our demands lies with the nature.

A brain, for instance, is estimated to be able to store something closer to 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes). The sad part, we don’t exactly know how it stores. Moreover, we don’t even know how we could precisely calculate their storage limits. These estimates are just a theoretical calculation. We still have a long way to go.

The greatest storage device

Recent successful experiments with storage and retrieval of data in the human DNA has come with a new hope for the future. Teams at the EU Bioinformatics Institute and Harvard University have successfully stored famous speeches, photos, and entire books, and then retrieved them with 99.99% accuracy.

Being able to store data in the DNA will confer upon us three advantages. Firstly, it will be fast (very), yes, faster than the flash drive. Secondly, it won’t age with repeated storage cycles (around 10,000 years), at least not like HDDs which have moving parts. Finally, DNA will enable us to reach data densities of unimaginable levels. Imagine being able to store of half a million DVD disks in a single gram of DNA!  Technically that would amount to 700 terabits per gram (measuring in area is difficult for an entity like this). Others have reached to densities as much as 2.2 petabytes per gram.

Bring DNA drives to our PCs I say!