Helium Shortage Ripples Around the Globe

Helium, a precious and dwindling resource, is underpriced. Experts say a helium-filled birthday balloon should really cost about $100. Jerry Downs/Flickr

Birthday parties and grand opening celebrations are often celebrated with helium-filled balloons bobbing in the breeze, but scientists say it's time we abandoned this wasteful practice. We are currently experiencing the third shortage in 14 years, and much more critical uses of this gas are at risk.

The colorless, odorless, tasteless, nontoxic gas is primarily used to cool things, with its biggest commercial use being MRI scanners. Other critical uses of the gas include cooling infrared detectors and nuclear reactors, machinery for wind tunnels, operation of satellite equipment, and to pressurize fuel tanks for space travel.

But the supply of helium is likely to get even more unpredictable soon because there are too few sources of the gas here on Earth, according to Smithsonian magazine. Ironically, helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, the majority of it created during the Big Bang. But here on Earth, it's rare, with much of it transformed at refineries in the United States and Qatar.

There are only two ways to create helium: nuclear fusion of the sun or radioactive decay from terrestrial rock. In other words, we can't just make more when we've used it all up. Most of what we have we got as a byproduct of natural gas extraction. The U.S. began to store helium in 1925, creating the National Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas, a site managed by the Bureau of Land Management or BLM.

The Helium Privatization Act was created to help the federal government pay off its investment in the network of pipes used to store our helium reserves. The law indicated that the same amount of helium should be sold every year to whittle down the supply, keeping prices low to ensure high volume of sales. However, the opposite approach would have made more sense.

Now, the price of helium has gone up at least 250%, with federal research labs benefitting from a subsidy to keep the price within reach.

Even back in 2010, the world was experiencing a helium shortage as the New Zealand Herald reported. The newspaper cited Cornell physics professor Robert Richardson, who said at the time we weren't letting the market determine the appropriate price of helium and that "we will dissipate [our helium reserves] in about 100 years. One generation does not have the right to determine availability forever."

It's ironic that the loss of a gas known for party balloons and funny voices has such a serious side. When you think about it, it's no laughing matter.