Being that I worked in the party balloon industry, I overheard startling talk late last year that we (as a country/planet) were experiencing a shortage of helium. I personally had no idea that helium was a non-renewable resource, so this news resulted in a flurry of research.
According to a 2010 article from The Independent, the trouble began with a U.S. law that was passed in 1996, “which has effectively made helium too cheap to recycle.”
The law stipulates that the US National Helium Reserve, which is kept in a disused underground gas field near Amarillo, Texas – by far the biggest store of helium in the world – must all be sold off by 2015, irrespective of the market price.
“In 1996, the US Congress decided to sell off the strategic reserve and the consequence was that the market was swelled with cheap helium because its price was not determined by the market. The motivation was to sell it all by 2015,” Professor Richardson [Nobel laureate and professor of physics at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York] said.
Apparently the recent shortage was due mostly to a Wyoming gas plant’s temporary shutdown, but it was enough to scare those in both the party industry and medical fields – since helium is mixed with nitrogen to cool the magnets in MRI machines! Since my dad happens to be an ultrasound technician, I thought I’d ask for his opinion on the issue:
Apparently, there is no [current] alternative for helium, for MRI, Atom-Smashers, Blimps, and weather balloons. Helium was [originally] the alternative for flammable hydrogen. According to some, we have reached “Peak Helium,” and we [only] have enough obtainable for another 25-30 years. Helium gets distilled from natural gas, at various amounts. I’m not sure about this 25-30 years maximum, when I read about North America floating upon natural gas deposits that defy description. We are looking at, according to researchers, at least 200, or 500, or 1000 years of obtainable natural gas. Never mind the Middle East, Brazil, Russia, Africa, or Asia. As the drilling equipment gets better, more natural gas is extracted. And presumably, more helium gets distilled. All that drilling, both onshore and offshore, needs to be supported by the populace. Good luck.
Most experts seem to agree that, with the current circumstances, helium won’t be running out completely for another 100 years, but the recent publicity should inspire some action. NJ.com quotes Mike Williams, associate director of engineering and infrastructure at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.
“Like most things, when the price goes up enough, people will look harder for other reserves and bring more attention to conservation, and therefore it will moderate that effect somewhat.”
So sometime during the next 100 years, either new technology needs to be developed to replace the tasks that only helium can do, or new laws concerning helium conservation/recycling need to be put into effect.
Or…perhaps a new reserve will be discovered and people will just stick their heads in the sand again until the next shortage. Personally, I’m interested to learn more on how helium is recycled and how (if?) it can be manually created – maybe my brother-in-law can share his scientific opinion?
Edited to add: Apparently I’m not the only one looking to educate themselves on this recent helium shortage. Since publishing this post, my blog hits have seen a bump, with many of the search terms relating to “helium shortage 2012.” To all my new readers: Thanks for stopping by and never lose that urge to learn more about the world around you!
Edited to also add: Thanks to the welders on the message boards over at www.millerwelds.com for giving me a recent bump in reads – I’m glad you felt my article was informative and worth sharing! This is reminding me that I need to do a follow up article….and I may be needing some welder input for that.
And edited to also add: The Watertown Daily Times just ran an article on the latest helium shortage panic – looks like I was once again ahead of the local news when it came to timely subjects!
Photo from The Big Fat Balloons Company