Supplies of helium are dwindling. An inconsistent supply chain affects industry, healthcare, science… and balloon sellers, but there’s hope for new gas fields.
A very noble gas
Named after the Greek god of the Sun, Helios, this noble gas was first detected during a solar eclipse in 1868. It is colourless, odourless, tasteless, non-reactive and non-flammable, and can remain a liquid at very low temperatures.
Rare on Earth
Although it’s the second most abundant element in the universe, helium is rare here on Earth (only 5.2 parts per million in our atmosphere). It is mostly created through the natural decay of radioactive elements, and is extracted from natural gas deposits.
Inert but useful
Helium is mostly used in cryogenics, thanks to its cooling properties, and is particularly useful for cooling magnets inside MRI scanners. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN employs huge amounts of the stuff. Other applications include arc welding, leak detection, wind tunnels, breathing mixtures, rockets and solar telescopes. But most famously, since it’s lighter than air, it keeps party balloons and airships buoyant.
The US is the biggest global supplier of helium (40% of the world’s supply), followed by Algeria, Qatar, Australia, Poland and Russia. The majority of US helium is stored in the National Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas.
Supply and demand
In 1996, US Congress ordered the government to sell much of the reserve, flooding the market with cheap helium. As prices dropped, new mining ceased. In recent years, as supplies have dwindled, prices have risen again.
That sinking feeling
GE Healthcare, which makes MRI scanners, is recycling its helium. Balloon sellers are affected by the shortage too: US retailer Party City has announced store closures.
Don't feel deflated
In recent years, terrestrial supplies of helium have been rationed. However, new reserves have been discovered in the US, Siberia, Tanzania and Canada. Deposits of the helium isotope helium-3 have also been found on the Moon, providing a potential future energy source for astronauts.
Generations of Bee Gees impersonators have inhaled helium from balloons. But over-inhalation can be dangerous. In recent decades several people have died after helium inhalation, 82 people in the UK in 2014 alone.
What They Say
“Helium is a non-renewable resource, and at humanity’s current rate of usage, the supply will be gone in 200 years. Then the party will really be over.”
Jason Daley, Smithsonian.com
“By having helium balloons at your party you may prevent people having an MRI scan. We are recycling helium from MRI scanners and from deep sea diving, but not from balloons.”
David Cole-Hamilton, professor of chemistry at the University of St Andrews
“It is safe to say that the major suppliers have taken full advantage of the shortage, with price increases as high as 100% observed in some cases.”
Phil Kornbluth, president of Kornbluth Helium Consulting
As the world experiences the third major helium shortage since 2006, Global Helium estimates there are 40 billion cubic metres of the gas in reserves. While exploration projects may discover new gas fields, demand is unlikely to decrease. Adding to the problem is the economic embargo on Qatar, which has choked the supply chain somewhat. One multinational supplier, Air Liquide, is circumventing this bottleneck and considering contingency routes for helium shipping through Oman, India and Sri Lanka. According to the US Geological Survey, prices in 2018 for crude helium were $3.10 per cubic metre for government users and $4.29 for non-government users. Grade-A helium on the private market was estimated at $7.57 per cubic metre. To ensure future supplies, some creative thinking – such as increased recycling and alternative technologies – will be required.