Helium has a number of US Defense uses and is an extremely important to the US Military.
Defense use falls into two types, indirect and direct. Indirect usage by the military is often direct usage by other groups. One example is weather monitoring, which is necessary for a number of military operations even when it is not the specific mission of a military group.
One of the most important direct uses of helium by the US Military represents about a fifth of yearly consumption in this country. Both NASA and US Defense agencies need helium to operate heat-guided missiles and rockets. It remains the only gas that can purge and pressurize the propulsion systems and tanks of rockets that rely on liquid hydrogen and oxygen as fuel. The use of an incompatible gas could cause engines to become nonfunctional.
Helium also has a critical role in surveillance within combat areas. Ground troops rely on helium to cool some types of thermographic cameras and other equipment. The Army in particular considers a supply of helium critical to its cryogenic research. Some of its detectors require liquid helium. Navy submarine detectors use helium to eradicate noisy signals.
The events of 9-11 caused US Defense organizations to increase surveillance efforts. Surveillance systems based on operating balloons and dirigibles require ready access to helium.
Attributes of Helium
Helium is the most abundant in the universe and also the second lightest. Scientists believe helium was a byproduct of the Big Bang. On Earth, the radioactive decay of heavier elements creates helium.
Helium has quite a few special attributes that make it very valuable for military and commercial use. Among the elements, it is the most stable. It neither burns nor reacts with any of the other elements. It remains a gas except in unusual conditions. Only under extreme conditions is it even possible to concoct any of the small number of helium compounds. However, unlike other materials that become solid when exposed to temperatures near absolute zero, helium remains a fluid.
The diversity of this element lies in its unique chemical and physical characteristics. The two most outstanding are its low atomic mass and a stable electronic configuration.
Limited Helium Supply
Helium a non-renewable natural resource. The most common way to recover helium is from deposits of natural gas. The richest helium areas in the US produce commercially feasible sources of natural gas that typically have higher concentrations of helium than those linked to international sources.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was tasked with operating and maintaining the Federal Helium Program (FHP). BLM staff in Amarillo, Texas operate and maintain the only federal storage reservoir, plant, and pipeline. The program supplies approximately 42 percent of US helium and 35 percent of the worldwide supply.
When the initial FHP ended, Congress passed the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013. This legislation continues FHP provisions until the end of fiscal year 2020.
Helium remains a vital resource in the US Defense and US Military supply chain. Supply limitations are strong indicators of rising helium prices on the horizon.