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March 17, 2011 | By:  Justine Chow
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The Rise and Fall of Helium

The news is awash with reports of our decreasing natural resources. We’re running out of money, oil, and water. If that’s not bad enough, we’re also running out of helium. The consequences reach far beyond balloons — it’s critically important for scientific research — and current US policy isn’t helping the situation at all.

Even though helium is the second-most abundant element in the universe, the concentration on Earth is low, and most of it escapes into space or is irrecoverable. Although nearly all of the usable global supply of helium today (both helium-4 and the rarer helium-3) is controlled by the US, the nation has been attempting to get rid of the noble gas as quickly as possible.

The US once correctly considered its helium a strategically important natural resource. The US National Helium Reserve was established in 1925 for supplying military airships. A direct result of this was the German use of hydrogen in zeppelins and the resulting Hindenberg disaster.

Military all over the world still find uses for helium, from nuclear detection to propaganda “bombs,” but it’s now mostly coveted by doctors and scientists for its non-military applications. Cryogenics and MRI machines require the use of helium. The Large Hadron Collider, nuclear reactors, and advanced telescopes use helium’s low boiling point to keep things cool. NASA uses helium for cleaning, leak detection, and pressurizing fuel in rockets.

Most importantly, helium is now being considered for fusion energy. It’s so promising, the Chinese government announced in 2006 that it wanted to put a man on the moon by 2024, with the end goal of mining helium-3.

In spite of all this, the US has largely regarded helium as waste gas after the Cold War. In 1996, the Helium Privatization Act was passed with the mission of getting rid of all US helium reserves by 2015, regardless of global demand, setting an extremely low world price for helium. According to physicist Robert Richmond, who co-chaired a National Research Council inquiry into the helium shortage last year, the helium in party balloons should more accurately be worth around $100.

So far, the Helium Privatization Act still remains standing, though there have been efforts to better allocate the use of helium, even restricting grants to scientists who have already pre-secured their helium-3. In the meantime, doctors and researchers who require the use of helium-3 are finding creative ways to recycle the gas, such as filtering out exhaled helium used for lung MRIs.

This past weekend, I celebrated my twenty-third birthday. My boyfriend sent me a beautiful potted palm with a metallic birthday balloon tied around it. “Better hold onto that balloon,” he joked over the phone, “Might be worth a lot someday.” It’s scary how true that is.

Image Credit: michibanan (via Flickr)


Connor, S. “Why the World is Running out of Helium.” The Independent. August 23, 2010.

"Helium." Wikipedia.

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