Despite liquid nitrogen's extremely low boiling temperatures of -196 °C, overclockers today are still not contented when it comes to squeezing that extra few MHz of performance out of their CPUs or GPUs. The next extreme substitute for liquid nitrogen is liquid helium, where its inert and non-toxic properties would allow enthusiasts easy and less restricted access to them. As you would know it, liquid helium's boiling point is -268°C and that is many folds lower than that of liquid nitrogen. Naturally, it would be every overclocker's secret weapon when it comes to breaking overclocking records. But little do they know, they are doing mankind more harm than good. And it's a shame that organizations are sponsoring such activities today.
Unlike liquid nitrogen, helium is a finite resource. Simply means, there's only this much of it found on Earth. You cannot manufacture helium, nor can you extract them from Earth's atmosphere. Although helium is the second most abundant element found in the known universe, you can only find about 5.2 parts per million of helium by volume in Earth's atmosphere. On the other hand, nitrogen exists in the air you breathe and each mouthful you take, at least 78% of it is nitrogen.
Now if helium is so rare, where do you get so much of it? Thankfully, there are still helium found trapped inside the earth's crust, mixed with your natural gas sources. This is where we get our helium, from natural gas fields where gases extracted can possibly contain as much as 7% helium; but most of the time less than that. If natural gas miners choose to ignore it, the gas will forever be lost to the atmosphere and eventually evaporated into space. This is why helium is so rare in the Earth's atmosphere and whatever left floating in the air are probably the result of the decay of radioactive elements like thorium or uranium.
Which brings us to the next question, if we can only harvest helium from natural gas fields, we may very well run out of it pretty soon. It's established that helium is a finite resource and you can never create nor extract them from the atmosphere. You can probably harvest them if you have a lot of decaying radioactive materials, but it's going to be too expensive and too time consuming to collect enough for overclockers to frivolously pour them onto scorching hot CPUs/GPUs.
Besides overclocking or inflating balloons, helium is used extensively for scientific research and medical purposes. I'll not bore you with a list of its uses, but if you look it up, you'll probably find that helium does form a very important part of our lives. It may not be apparent to you right now, but imagine a day when a certain medical technique is rendered useless without helium, or a particular manufacturing process to build your favorite processors is no longer possible. I certainly would not want that to happen. Sure we'll find ways to replace helium, but they might come at a cost.
Today, reports of helium shortage have caused the prices of this rare element to increase. This is indicative of its shortage and the laws of economics are usually correct in such circumstances.
So the next time before you inhale a helium-filled balloon just so you can sound like Mickey Mouse or applaud the actions of an overclocker, think of the consequences first and take responsible steps to discourage the senseless squandering of this precious resource. I certainly would not put my stamp of approval on yet another silly overclocking record, especially one that uses liquid helium.
Dr. Jimmy Tang / Former Group Editor
A semiconductor materials engineer who is also into DIY projects, audiophile, World of Warcraft, photography and fine cuisine.