La desinflada industría del helio

OXFORD – El helio es vital en el mundo actual basado en la tecnología. Enfría, con precisión, las bobinas superconductoras de las máquinas de formación de imágenes por resonancia magnética (MRI), así como el silicio que se usa para fabricar chips para dispositivos, como por ejemplo para los teléfonos inteligentes, o el cristal que se incorpora en las fibras ópticas. Para los cohetes alimentados por presión, para la ciencia física de alto nivel o incluso para inflar globos de fiesta, no existe una alternativa al helio que sea realista.

Hasta hace poco, la aparentemente abundante oferta de helio a nivel mundial se extraía únicamente como un subproducto de la producción de gas natural en apenas dos docenas de campos ricos en helio. Sin embargo, los déficits mundiales en la producción de helio han impulsado una inflación de dos dígitos en los precios del helio y han fomentado una ansiedad creciente dentro de la comunidad científica. En la actualidad, quienes se dedican a la prospección en Estados Unidos – país que es el mayor exportador de helio a nivel mundial – exploran campos en la búsqueda exclusiva de helio.

Inevitablemente, la escasez de helio estimula el debate acerca de la producción y las prácticas de conservación. Desde la promulgación de la Ley de privatización del helio [Helium Privatization Act] (HPA, por sus siglas en inglés) de E.E.U.U. en el año 1996 – misma que obligaba al gobierno a vender completamente sus reservas de helio utilizando una fórmula de precios rígidos, a fin de pagar la deuda acumulada debido a un gran compra de helio en la década de 1960 – se han presentado tres periodos de escasez.

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