By Kim Robson
Have you heard about the looming worldwide helium shortage? If you haven’t, you’re not alone.
To refresh your high school chemistry, helium is an chemical element with the symbol “He” and atomic number 2. It is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, nontoxic, inert gas that heads the noble gas group in the periodic table. After hydrogen, helium is the second lightest element and is the second most abundant element in the observable universe. It exists only as a gas except in extreme conditions.
Although helium is abundant in the universe, comprising about 24% of total elemental mass, it is quite rare on Earth, about 5.2 parts per million by volume in the atmosphere. The vast majority of helium is thought to have been formed within one to three minutes after the Big Bang, although it is also being created inside stars through nuclear fusion. The helium we use comes from underground. It is separated from natural gas deposits, where it comprises up to 7% of natural gas volume. It is not easy or cheap to extract and store helium.
The United States leads the world in helium production, with about 75% of the world’s helium supplies. About half of that is stored outside Amarillo, Texas, in the country’s Federal Helium Reserve, a vast subterranean complex of storage reservoirs and pipelines that extend to natural gas fields as far away as Kansas.
The Federal Helium Reserve was created shortly after World War I, when helium was vital to the military for floating reconnaissance aircraft. Ever since then, and more and more today, helium has proven to be indispensable in a wide range of industrial and medical applications.
Helium’s largest single industrial use is for cryogenics (which accounts for about a quarter of helium production). Cryogenics involves cooling magnets until they’re so cold (-238°F) they become superconductors. Commercially, they’re commonly used inside MRI scanners. Helium also is used as a pressurizing and purging gas; as part of a protective atmosphere for arc welding, for growing crystals to make silicon computer chips, and to make optical fiber and medical lasers; and in rocket engine testing and air-to-air missile guidance systems. These industrial applications account for another half of our helium usage. It’s also an important element for studying quantum mechanics. And, of course, we all know of its use as a lifting gas in balloons and airships.
Now, however, there is a looming helium shortage of helium, and it is actually the federal government’s doing. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages the Federal Helium Reserve, has been selling off helium at below-market rates for decades. This has encouraged waste, and discouraged the development of new helium sources and new technologies for its extraction and refinement.
In 1996, Congress stepped in and mandated that the federal government stop selling helium altogether, so the BLM is selling off its existing supply until it recovers the cost of producing it. That is expected to happen this October, after which point the government will not be allowed to sell any more helium.
Suddenly, much of the industrialized world is now facing an imminent “helium cliff.” In April, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that would have allowed continued helium sales after October, but the Senate has not yet passed its own version of the bill. David Isaacs of the Semiconductor Industry Association says, “We’re running out of time. We’re positioned to get it done, but there’s certainly no guarantee — certainly not in this Congress.”
When I learned of the looming helium shortage, I wondered if I was being criminally wasteful by purchasing helium-filled party balloons for birthdays and other special occasions. I certainly don’t like seeing giant balloons in parades anymore, and San Diego hosts one of the biggest after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
But not to worry! Apparently these uses of helium amount to a tiny fraction of the world’s supply. So go ahead and get those party balloons for your next event without guilt. Besides, what children haven’t delighted in sucking some of the helium out of balloons to make their voices sound funny? I still don’t feel good about giant balloon parades, but the occasional party balloon isn’t going to break the bank, so to speak. At least not yet.