A Indústria Esvaziada do Hélio

OXFORD – O hélio é vital no mundo tecnológico de hoje. Arrefece, com precisão, as bobinas supercondutoras das máquinas de ressonância magnética, assim como o silício usado para fazer circuitos integrados para dispositivos como os telemóveis, ou o vidro usado na produção de fibras ópticas. Para foguetões alimentados por pressão, para a Grande Física, ou mesmo para balões de festas, não há uma alternativa realista ao hélio.

Até há pouco tempo, o aparentemente abundante fornecimento mundial de hélio era extraído somente como subproduto da extracção de gás natural, em apenas duas dúzias de jazidas ricas em hélio. Mas as deficiências globais na produção de hélio conduziram a uma inflação de dois dígitos nos preços do hélio, e provocaram uma ansiedade crescente na comunidade científica. Agora, os prospectores nos Estados Unidos – os maiores exportadores mundiais de hélio – exploram jazidas exclusivamente à procura de hélio.

As faltas de hélio incitam inevitavelmente ao debate sobre as práticas de produção e preservação. Desde a Lei de Privatização do Hélio (LPH) de 1996, nos EUA – que determinou as vendas pelo governo das suas reservas de hélio utilizando uma fórmula de preços rígida, de modo a reembolsar a dívida acumulada pelo elevado armazenamento de hélio na década de 1960 – houve três dessas crises de oferta.

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