IELTS READING PRACTICE TEST PASSAGE 3: HELIUM’S FUTURE UP IN THE AIR

HELIUM’S FUTURE UP IN THE AIR

A. In recent years we have all been exposed to dire media reports concerning the impending demise of global coal and oil reserves, but the depletion of another key non-renewable resource continues without receiving much press at all. Helium – an inert, odourless, monatomic element known to lay people as the substance that makes balloons float and voices squeak when inhaled – could be gone from this planet within a generation.

B. Helium itself is not rare; there is actually a plentiful supply of it in the cosmos. In fact, 24 per cent of our galaxy’s elemental mass consists of helium, which makes it the second most abundant element in our universe. Because of its lightness, however, most helium vanished from our own planet many years ago. Consequently, only a miniscule proportion – 0.00052%, to be exact – remains in earth’s atmosphere. Helium is the by-product of millennia of radioactive decay from the elements thorium and uranium. The helium is mostly trapped in subterranean natural gas bunkers and commercially extracted through a method known as fractional distillation. 

C. The loss of helium on Earth would affect society greatly. Defying the perception of it as a novelty substance for parties and gimmicks, the element actually has many vital applications in society. Probably the most well known commercial usage is in airships and blimps (non-flammable helium replaced hydrogen as the lifting gas du jour after the Hindenburg catastrophe in 1932, during which an airship burst into flames and crashed to the ground killing some passengers and crew). But helium is also instrumental in deep-sea diving, where it is blended with nitrogen to mitigate the dangers of inhaling ordinary air under high pressure; as a cleaning agent for rocket engines; and, in its most prevalent use, as a coolant for superconducting magnets in hospital MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanners. 

D. The possibility of losing helium forever poses the threat of a real crisis because its unique qualities are extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible to duplicate (certainly, no biosynthetic ersatz product is close to approaching the point of feasibility for helium, even as similar developments continue apace for oil and coal). Helium is even cheerfully derided as a “loner” element since it does not adhere to other molecules like its cousin, hydrogen. According to Dr. Lee Sobotka, helium is the “most noble of gases, meaning it’s very stable and non-reactive for the most part … it has a closed electronic configuration, a very tightly bound atom. It is this coveting of its own electrons that prevents combination with other elements’. Another important attribute is helium’s unique boiling point, which is lower than that for any other element. The worsening global shortage could render millions of dollars of high-value, life-saving equipment totally useless. The dwindling supplies have already resulted in the postponement of research and development projects in physics laboratories and manufacturing plants around the world. There is an enormous supply and demand imbalance partly brought about by the expansion of high-tech manufacturing in Asia.

E. The source of the problem is the Helium Privatisation Act (HPA), an American law passed in 1996 that requires the U.S. National Helium Reserve to liquidate its helium assets by 2015 regardless of the market price. Although intended to settle the original cost of the reserve by a U.S. Congress ignorant of its ramifications, the result of this fire sale is that global helium prices are so artificially deflated that few can be bothered recycling the substance or using it judiciously. Deflated values also mean that natural gas extractors see no reason to capture helium. Much is lost in the process of extraction. As Sobotka notes: “The government had the good vision to store helium, and the question now is: Will the corporations have the vision to capture it when extracting natural gas, and consumers the wisdom to recycle? This takes long-term vision because present market forces are not sufficient to compel prudent practice”. For Nobel-prize laureate Robert Richardson, the U.S. government must be prevailed upon to repeal its privatisation policy as the country supplies over 80 per cent of global helium, mostly from the National Helium Reserve. For Richardson, a twenty- to fifty-fold increase in prices would provide incentives to recycle.

F. A number of steps need to be taken in order to avert a costly predicament in the coming decades. Firstly, all existing supplies of helium ought to be conserved and released only by permit, with medical uses receiving precedence over other commercial or recreational demands. Secondly, conservation should be obligatory and enforced by a regulatory agency. At the moment some users, such as hospitals, tend to recycle diligently while others, such as NASA, squander massive amounts of helium. Lastly, research into alternatives to helium must begin in earnest.

Questions 27-31

Reading passage 3 has six paragraphs, A-F

Which paragraph contains the following information ?

Write the correct letter, A-F, in boxes 27-31 on your answer sheet

27 ………. A use for helium which makes an activity safer

28 ……….  The possibility of creating an alternative to helium

29 ……….  A term which describes the process of how helium is taken out of the ground

30 ……….  A reason why users of helium do not make efforts to conserve it

31 ……….  A contrast between helium’s chemical properties and how non-scientists think about it

Questions 32-35

Do the following statements agree with the claims of the writer in Reading passage 3?

In boxes 32-35 on your answer sheet, write

YES                       if the statement agrees with the claims of the writer

NO                         if the statement contradicts the claims of the writer 

NOT GIVEN        if it is impossible to say what the writer think about this

32 ………. Helium chooses to be on its own

33 ………. Helium is a very cold substance.

34 ………. High-tech industries in Asia use more helium than laboratories and manufacturers in other parts of the world.

35  ………. The US Congress understood the possible consequences of the HPA.

Questions 36-40

Complete the summary below.

Choose NO MORE THAN TWO WORDS from the passage for each answer

Write your answers in boxes 36-40 on your answer sheet

  • Sobotka argues that big business and users of helium need to help look after helium stocks because 36 ………. will not be encouraged through buying and selling alone. Richardson believes that the 37 ………. needs to be withdrawn, as the U.S provides most of the world’s helium. He argues that higher costs would mean people have 38……….  to use the resource many times over.
  • People should need a 39……….  to access helium that we still have. Furthermore, a 40……….  should ensure that helium is used carefully.

Answers

27. Answer: C 

A use for helium which makes an activity safer

  • Key words: use for helium, make safer
  • It is stated in paragraph C that: “helium is also instrumental in deep-sea diving, where it is blended with nitrogen to mitigate the dangers of inhalingordinary air under high pressure; 

make safer = mitigate the dangers of

  • Therefore, one use of helium is in deep-sea diving, where helium is combined with nitrogen to lessen the dangers of breathing in ordinary air, which would be fatal under high pressure.

=> The answer is C

28. Answer: D 

The possibility of creating an alternative to helium

  • Key words: possiblity, creating an alternative
  • The information can be found in paragraph D: “The possibility of losing helium forever poses the threat of a real crisis because its unique qualities are extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible to duplicate (certainly, no biosynthetic ersatz product is close to approaching the point of feasibility for helium, even as similar developments continue apace for oil and coal)”. 

possibility -> difficult, if not impossible

create an alternative -> duplicate

  • This means that helium has such unique qualities that it is almost impossible to find other substitutions for it.

=> The answer is D

29. Answer: B 

A term which describes the process of how helium is taken out of the ground

  • Key words: process, helium, taken out of the ground
  • Paragraph B mentions: “ The helium is mostly trapped in subterranean natural gas bunkers and commercially extracted through a method known as fractional distillation”. 

ground = subterranean natural gas bunkers

taken out = extracted

  • This means “fractional distillation” is a method to take helium out of the ground.

=> The answer is B

30. Answer: E 

A reason why users of helium do not make efforts to conserve it

  • Key words: helium users, do not, conserve
  • It is mentioned in paragraph E that: “Although intended to settle the original cost of the reserve by a U.S. Congress ignorant of its ramifications, the result of this fire sale is that global helium prices are so artificially deflated that few can be bothered recycling the substance or using it judiciously. Deflated values also mean that natural gas extractors see no reason to capture helium.”. 

users of helium = natural gas extractors

do not make efforts to conserve it = see no reason to capture helium

  • This suggests the reason why people who use helium do not try hard to conserve it is deflated values.  In other words, the price of helium is cheap.

=> The answer is E

30. Answer: A 

A contrast between helium’s chemical properties and how non-scientists think about it

  • Key words: contrast, chemical properties, non-scientists think
  • It is stated in paragraph A that: “Helium – an inert, odourless, monatomic element known to lay people as the substance that makes balloons float and voices squeak when inhaled – could be gone from this planet within a generation.”

non-scientists = lay people (ordinary people, who are not experts)

  • This sentence from the passage states first how science describes helium, and then contrasts this with what ordinary people know about this gas.

=>The answer is A

32. Answer: YES 

Helium chooses to be on its own.

  • Key words: chooses, be on its own
  • The information can be found in paragraph D: “Helium is even cheerfully derided as a “loner” element since it does not adhere to other molecules like its cousin, hydrogen. According to Dr. Lee Sobotka, helium is the “most noble of gases, meaning it’s very stable and non-reactive for the most part … it has a closed electronic configuration, a very tightly bound atom. It is this coveting of its own electrons that prevents combination with other elements’.”
  • Helium’s electronic configuration is so strong that it prevents helium from combining with other elements, which is why helium is called a “loner” element.

be on its own= loner, prevents combination

=> The answer is YES

33. Answer: NOT GIVEN 

Helium is a very cold substance.

  • Key word: cold
  • Paragraphs A and D are the only paragraphs that discuss the characteristics of helium; however, neither of them mentioned the temperature of helium (only its boiling point was mentioned).

=> The answer is NOT GIVEN

34. Answer: NOT GIVEN 

High-tech industries in Asia use more helium than laboratories and manufacturers in other parts of the world.

  • Key words: High-tech industries, Asia, use more, other parts
  • These key words can be found in paragraph D: “The dwindling supplies have already resulted in the postponement of research and development projects in physics laboratories and manufacturing plants around the world. There is an enormous supply and demand imbalance partly brought about by the expansion of high-tech manufacturing in Asia.”
  • However, the paragraph only mentioned the shortage of helium and the imbalance in supply and demand. No comparison was made about high-tech industries in Asia using more helium than those in other parts of the world.

=> The answer is NOT GIVEN

35. Answer: NO 

The US Congress understood the possible consequences of the HPA.

  • Paragraph E stated that: “Although intended to settle the original cost of the reserve by a U.S. Congress ignorant of its ramifications, the result of this fire sale is that global helium prices are so artificially deflated that few can be bothered recycling the substance or using it judiciously.”

(not) understood = ignorant of

consequences = ramifications

  • Referring to the HPA (Helium Protection Act), the writer states that the US Congress was selling its helium reserves without understanding the consequences.  This contradicts the statement.

=> The answer is NO

36. Answer: prudent practice 

Sobotka argues that big business and users of helium need to help look after helium stocks because ………………..will not be encouraged through buying and selling alone.

  • The information comes from paragraph E: “As Sobotka notes: “[t]he government had the good vision to store helium, and the question now is: Will the corporations have the vision to capture it when extracting natural gas, and consumers the wisdom to recycle? This takes long-term vision because present market forces are not sufficient to compel prudent practice”.”

big business = corporations

users of helium = consumers

help look after = capture when extracting, recycle

buying and selling = market forces

will not be encouraged = not sufficient to compel

=> The answer is “prudent practice

37. Answer: privatisation policy / privatization policy 

Richardson believes that the ………………..needs to be withdrawn, as the U.S. provides most of the world’s helium.

  • Key words: Richardson, withdrawn, US, provide most
  • It is stated in paragraph E that “For Nobel-prize laureate Robert Richardson, the U.S. government must be prevailed upon to repeal its privatisation policy as the country supplies over 80 per cent of global helium, mostly from the National Helium Reserve.”

withdraw = repeal

provides most of = supplies over 80% of

the world’s = global

  • This sentence means that the US should not be allowed to continue its privatisation policy concerning helium, as it is the main provider of this scarce resource.

=> The answer is “privatisation policy privatization policy”

38. Answer: incentives 

He argues that higher costs would mean people have ……………….. to use the resource many times over.

  • Key words: higher costs, use many times
  • Also stated in paragraph E: “For Richardson, a twenty- to fifty-fold increase in prices would provide incentives to recycle.”

higher costs = a twenty- to fifty-fold increase in prices

use many times over = recycle

  • Richardson believes that a rise of 20 to 50 times in the price of helium would encourage people to use the gas many times over.

=> The answer is “incentives

39. Answer: permit 

People should need a ……………….. to access helium that we still have.

  • Key words: need, access helium, still have
  • Paragraph F stated that: “Firstly, all existing supplies of helium ought to be conserved and released only by permit, …”

helium that we still have =existing supplies of helium

 (people) have access to helium = released (to people)

  • This sentence means that in order to conserve the limited supplies, a permit should be necessary for people who want to use available helium.

=> The answer is “permit

40. Answer: regulatory agency 

Furthermore, a ………………..should ensure that helium is used carefully.

  • Key words: ensure, helium, used carefully
  • Mentioned in paragraph F: “Secondly, conservation should be obligatory and enforced by a regulatory agency.”

used carefully = conservation

ensure = enforce

  • This sentence means that a regulatory agency should be responsible for making sure that helium is used carefully.

=>The answer is “regulatory agency

IELTS Reading British council

More IELTS Reading Passage 3

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