The rising cost (and deflating supply) of helium

Britney Jones
6 September 2013

Helium is the second most plentiful element in the universe. So how can we possibly be in the middle of a helium shortage? In fact, Earth has relatively little helium compared to the rest of the cosmos. And this non-renewable resource has tended to be overused and underappreciated, especially since the American government started selling off its stockpile of the gas in the 1990s.

Did you know? Eight percent of available helium is used to fill helium balloons!

Helium isn’t just used to fill party balloons. Some other uses of this odourless, invisible, and tasteless gas include fibre optics, cryogenics, and as a pressurizing agent in rocket fuel. In medicine, helium cools the superconducting magnets used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners, which help identify illness or injury by taking high-resolution pictures of the inside of your body.

If helium is so critical to so many different industries, it’s no wonder there are people panicking over an impending shortage! So how did we end up in this situation?

The answer lies in helium’s former military uses. The element helped sharpen signals in submarine detectors and in the guidance systems of heat-seeking missiles. In fact, helium was considered so important that in 1960 the American Congress authorized the purchase of a century’s worth. As a result, the US National Helium Reserve in Texas became the largest stockpile of helium in the world.

Did you know? Helium is non-toxic, but inhaling it can cause oxygen deprivation.

However, by the 1990s, helium was no longer so important for military technology. In 1996, the American government decided to completely sell off its reserve by 2015. This created a huge surplus: for years, helium was plentiful and, as a result, it was also very cheap! So cheap, in fact, that there was no incentive to look for alternatives or to use helium more efficiently. The low cost also helped encourage widespread helium use.

Almost two decades later, the American helium reserve has almost been tapped out and prices have skyrocketed. While we may be able to live without helium balloons, the impact of the shortage on important technologies such as MRIs is much more daunting.

So what’s the solution?

There are alternative sources of helium that have been largely ignored because it has been so cheap and plentiful in recent years. For example, helium can be captured from decaying radioactive hydrogen isotopes or recovered from burning natural gas. Scientists are also working on preserving the existing supply, by finding more efficient ways of recovering and recycling helium. Others have found ways of making MRI machines work without any helium whatsoever.

Did you know? The word helium comes from the Greek helios, which means “sun”.

Most likely, the helium shortage will force researchers to find newer, more effective ways of building communications networks, studying the effects of low temperatures, launching rockets, and diagnosing what ails you. As for party balloons, there’s always good old-fashioned lung power!

References

General news and science websites

8 surprising high-tech uses for helium (Francie Diep, TechNews Daily) A ballooning problem: the great helium shortage (Steve Connor, The Independent UK) Global Helium Shortage Ballooning out of Control (Carin Hall, EnergyDigital) Helium Reserve Faces Shutdown (Kristina Peterson, Wall Street Journal) Why is there a helium shortage? (Bobby Magill, Popular Mechanics)

Government documents

America’s helium supply: Options for producing helium from federal lands (Timothy R. Spisak, US Department of the Interior)

Scholarly publications

Cosmus TC, Parizh M. 2011. Advances in whole-body MRI magnets. 21(3):2104-2109. Kaplan K. 2007. Helium shortage hampers research and industry. Physics Today. 60:31. http://link.aip.org/link/phtoad/v60/i6/p31/s1 Wang C. 2010. A helium re-liquefier for recovering and liquefying helium vapor from cryostat. Transactions of the cryogenic engineering conference-CEC: Advances in Cryogenic Engineering. AIP Conference proceedings. 1218:687-694. http://proceedings.aip.org/resource/2/apcpcs/1218/1/687_1?bypassSSO=1

Britney Jones

Britney earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Calgary, majoring in biological sciences and minoring in psychology. She then went on to receive a Master’s degree in Biomedical Technology, where she developed a keen interest in health advocacy research. Britney spent two years as a member of the Clinical Research team at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. Currently, she is in her third year of medical school. 


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