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The Future of Helium Is Up in the Air

The world is experiencing a shortage of the gas, a byproduct of natural gas production, threatening MRIs, scientific research and birthday parties

(Getty Images/ Bernard Jaubert)
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Sorry to burst your balloon, but the world is currently experiencing its third major helium shortage in the last 14 years, putting more than just party decorations at risk.

Heather Murphy at The New York Times reports that the shortage recently made headlines when Party City, the chain store perhaps best known for being the place to get bunches of helium balloons, announced the closure of 45 of its 870 stores. Many people, noting that recently some of the stores have been out or short of helium, blamed the low supply of the gas. Corporate headquarters, however, say the closures have nothing to do with helium shortages. Nevertheless, the story brought to light the fact that helium is currently being rationed.

Helium is the second most abundant element in the entire universe. So why can’t we keep it in stock? Soo Youn at ABC News reports that here on Earth helium is kind of hard to come by. It’s created during the decay of uranium and thorium underground and is collected along with natural gas. During natural gas processing it's then separated out into a transportable liquid form. But doing that is expensive, and it only takes place at 14 refineries in the entire world, with seven in the United States, two in Qatar, two in Algeria and one in Poland, Russia and Australia, respectively. Phil Kornbluth, a helium industry consultant, tells Murphy that currently natural gas projects that produce helium in many of these areas are running low on supply, and large projects that were anticipated to be up and running by now have either been shelved or are running behind.

The supply of helium is likely to get even more unpredictable soon. As Michael Greshko at National Geographic reports, the United States established the National Helium Reserve, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, in Amarillo, Texas, in the 1920s to try and even out the supply. Currently, about 40 percent of the U.S. raw helium supply is pumped into the underground reservoir 3,000 feet belowground before being meted out to refineries. But in 1996, Congress mandated that supplies in the reserve be sold off by 2013, though that deadline was extended until 2021.

“In the past, we were considered a flywheel—whenever there were impacts in the delivery system, we could ramp up and produce and keep enough helium in the system, where the shortages were short-term,” Samuel Burton, BLM manager for Reserve tells Greshko. “Now, as we wind down our program, there really needs to be more helium found, more production created, and more secure delivery systems in place.”

Helium is not just for balloons or producing Chipmunk voices either. It’s used in fiber optics, MRI and other medical machines, in the manufacture of airbags and dozens of other industrial processes. Edward C. Baig and Charisse Jones at USA Today spoke with representatives from several industries who said the shortage isn't currently impacting their businesses. But that could soon change. “The shortage of helium which is present now – and which we can anticipate will increase – will affect, broadly, everybody,” William Halperin, a physics professor at Northwestern University, who gets subsidized helium from a program that supports federal research labs, tells USA Today. According to a 2016 report on the helium shortage, helium prices have gone up 250 percent, making it hard to afford for some scientific labs.

So what can be done, besides giving up helium balloons and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (which actually once filled its balloons with air and just carried them around on crane trucks due to a helium shortage in 1958). Greshko reports the National Science Foundation is experimenting with outfitting some labs with helium recycling capabilities. Others suggest funding more research into helium recycling or finding a substitute gas.

But the upshot is this—helium is another non-renewable resource, and at humanity's current rate of usage, the supply will be gone in 200 years. Then the party will really be over.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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