News of the WeekPhysics

Helium-3 Shortage Could Put Freeze On Low-Temperature Research

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Science  06 Nov 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5954, pp. 778-779
DOI: 10.1126/science.326_778

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In recent years, the supply of helium-3, the lighter isotope of the most inert element, has dwindled, while the demand has skyrocketed—especially since 2002, when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Department of Energy (DOE) began deploying thousands of helium-3–filled neutron detectors to help prevent the smuggling of plutonium and other radioactive materials into the country. In the short term, demand will likely top 65,000 liters per year, while supply will hover between 10,000 and 20,000 liters per year, according to a DOE study. The shortfall threatens several research fields, and DOE, the major supplier, is releasing the gas only to researchers with U.S. funding.