The Great Helium Shortage: 2012 Edition

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

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15 thoughts on “The Great Helium Shortage: 2012 Edition

  1. I read about this few months ago and was blown away. Like you, I never really thought about helium before. I already think that balloons are wasteful, but this makes them really wasteful…

  2. This is a nice recap. It’s funny how the helium shortage only became a reality for most people when a lot of places weren’t able to sell birthday balloons this past fall. There are definitely more important uses like MRIs, but most of the news I read was focused on balloons…figures. As you mention, there may be no alternative to helium for MRIs—the real alternative is finding ways to recycle helium to make it last longer…
    I had a chance to speaking with the head of global helium at Linde, a major gas supplier, who said there are more shutdowns planned like the one in Wyoming. If you’re interested in his take, you can see it at http://www.weldingandgasestoday.org/index.php/2012/01/eyeing-potential-shortages-in-2012/

  3. Hi Devin – thanks for stopping and for the interesting link. I always appreciate someone in the industry sharing their views/knowledge on the subject!

  4. Pingback: Helium prices keep Bournemouth balloon up in the air | The Breaker

  5. The gas shortage, the coffee shortage, that sugar shortage but a real shame an intelligent shortage in this country.

  6. Hmmmm with all the scandels going on in the world, one has to wonder if this isn’t just another ploy to jack up prices on yet another item? I don’t mean to sound like another conspiracy theorist or anything just food for thought!

  7. With the abundance of natural gas in this country helium should not be a problem, if I understand it correctly, because helium is a byproduct of natural gas production.

  8. I’m no helium expert, but here’s my “scientific take” from 15 minutes of internet research: Helium is a non-renewable resource (at least right now until nuclear fusion becomes practical) and it needs to be recycled as much as possible because it is not readily available.

    While its true that it can be found in natural gas reserves, it is not always found in large concentrations and there are only a few places in the world we know of where the concentrations are high enough to make it worthwhile. These places include Texas (which is one of the main sources of currently) and Russia (which has not been developed for helium production yet).

    So unless we want to become dependent on Russia for this vital gas, it’s important we conserve the helium we have now. Whenever helium isn’t recycled it simply floats up and out of the atmosphere.

    Calling this a helium crisis is overblown though- there is supply of helium out there, but not an endless one, and not one that will always keep up with our demands. Sound familiar? The principles of conservation apply equally to our energy and our party balloons!

  9. Agreed on the principles of conservation. The flower shop where I used to work was apparently setting a limit on number of balloons customers could order for graduation parties. How about just NOT ordering party balloons when there’s a shortage of helium? It’s really quite incredible when people can’t differentiate between “want,” “need” and “completely unnecessary!

    I am still interested in finding out more about alternatives to helium, at least in the sense of its other uses (for MRIs, welding, etc).

    Thanks for chiming in, Nick!

  10. I have been in the helium business for over 30 years and my customers mainly use teh gas for balloons. In regards to what you wrote in your article, before the government decided to sell the strategic reserves in 1996, they ALSO controlled the price. Prior to then, I was able to negotiate lower prices from my suppliers because my volume kept increasing as my company grew. After 1996 when the gov. decided to sell the reserves, they also deregulated the price of helium and EVER SINCE THEN the price of helium kept increasing. NOT decreasing. So your comment about the market swelling with cheap helium prices is completely false. The big industrial gas companies had always fixed their prices and still do today in a sense. 25 years ago a big player in the industry told me stories of the “old days” and how the biggest competitors had adjoining boxes at the Santa Anita racetrack and did a lot of “business planning” there. That evolved to today when one company just announces in the Wall Street Journal that they were going to increase prices and all the other companies follow suit for any gasses. No price wars in that industry for sure! Since 1996 the medical industry and the government have increased usage as well as technology and manufacturing using more and more (Electronics and other manufacturing use helium in their various processes). Balloon helium is actually a very small percentage of the worldwide users of the gas. And really should not be taken into consideration as far as a major part of the problem or solution for the future. I guess the only exception is if you consider Disneyland/World who uses an incredible amount of helium annually, negotiates the lowest prices from suppliers and sells it for the highest profit margin to the public. My sales rep told me that today a balloon at Disneyland is $25.00, and the amount of helium is MUCH less than a dollar’s cost to them. What is the cost of having an MRI? Thousands of dollars? The price of electronic circuitry or other stuff made using helium in the process? Quite a bit. The government developing huge blimp drones: http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/06/deflated-mega-blimp/ or launching rockets that the engines literally take full train loads of huge helium tanks to fill them? Millions if not billions of dollars. So all the helium filled party balloons sold worldwide each year is not much more than 10% of the annual consumption as well as being sold for low profit margins compared to how much the other users of helium are selling their products or services for. Helium is produced mainly as a by product of natural gas production. But when it is summer time, the demand for natural gas is very low so the supply tightens during those warmer months. If the car makers would make natural gas cars or other uses for natural gas increase, then it would increase the amount of and make helium more available and affordable as well. So as far as the great helium shortage of 2012 goes, the reason was because of a “perfect storm” situation. Plants going down for scheduled maintenance or unplanned problems. The worldwide demand continuing to increase. Natural gas not being mined so much in the warmer months are all part of the problem. And one thing that hasn’t been really addressed are the huge industrial gas companies taking millions of dollars in profits by really jacking up the price, about 65% since 1/1/2012. In the 30+ years I have been in the business, I have never seen the prices go down since the deregulation, so unless teh availability increases dramatically, be prepared to get used to the high price. Increasing the demand for natural gas, medical or technology using other gasses or finding other ways of mfg. No boondoggles like the worlds biggest blimps for survellience. Those are really the ways to cut demand. Helium will never run out until natural gas is all gone too. So do not believe those who say so. And don’t feel bad about buying your kids some balloons for their birthday. Balloons are a very small part of the big problem. It also is the best way to support the small business who sell balloons. Most are owned by people like you just trying to make a living.

  11. Thanks for chiming in, Jim – I really do appreciate all the insider info this post has attracted. I do wish I knew who you were talking to specifically with calling a comment “false”…But it’s nice that you mentioned that balloons are only a small part of a big problem. I feel a little less agitated about them now, but I still don’t think I would go out of my way to buy one – small steps can make a big difference!

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