From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Helium and its practical uses
Mains level : Helium imports of India
India imports helium for its needs and with the U.S. appearing set to cut off exports of helium since 2021, the Indian industry stands to lose out heavily.
Helium is not just for balloons but it is the key ingredient for India’s high technology and the most sophisticated medical diagnosis.
Helium on Earth
- Helium is a chemical element with the symbol He and atomic number 2.
- It is a colourless, odourless, tasteless, non-toxic, inert, monatomic gas, the first in the noble gas group in the periodic table. Its boiling point is the lowest among all the elements.
- In 1906 a young Englishman by the name of Moris Travers arrived in Bangalore, to take up the position of the Director of Indian Institute of Science.
- Travers extracted helium in small quantity by heating up monazite sand abundantly available in Kerala beach, in a pioneering effort.
- Dutch physicist Kamerlingh Onnes liquefied Helium by cooling the gas to -270 degrees Celsius.
- It is known that Onnes collected helium gas from the springs of Bath in Baden Baden, Germany for his liquefaction experiment.
Helium in India
- India’s Rajmahal volcanic basin is the storehouse of helium trapped for billions of years, since the very birth of our Earth from the Sun.
- At present, researchers are mapping the Rajmahal basin extensively for future exploration and harnessing of helium.
Why India needs Helium?
- Every year, India imports helium worth Rs 55,000 crores from the U.S. to meet its needs.
- Helium is used in medicine, scientific research, for blimp inflation, party balloons as well as having welding applications.
- It finds many applications, mainly in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, in rockets and in nuclear reactors.
US monopoly in Helium
- The U.S. became the most important exporter of helium across the world.
- It was soon realized that the U.S. was also the biggest storehouse of helium.
- The US is now planning to switch off the export of helium from 2021.
- Qatar is a possible exporter but acute political and diplomatic wrangles have made Qatar unreliable.