Helium shortage impacts science, industry and celebrations

May 13, 2019

If helium balloons are on your shopping list for a Mother’s Day or a graduation celebration, you’ve probably noticed fewer shops are filling balloons and those that do are charging more. The cost of helium has increased more than 250% in recent years, and shortages have already begun because we are running of helium and can’t make more.

While it is the second-most abundant element in the universe (behind hydrogen) and the Sun produces about 600 million metric tons each second, our supply here on Earth is limited. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. We can’t make more, and once used, the lightweight element escapes into space.

The helium atom is smaller than any other element, and only hydrogen is lighter. That makes it a very good lifting gas in applications like balloons and blimps. But helium has far more critical uses than birthday balloons.

Nearly all of our helium is extracted from natural gas, a byproduct of radioactive decay of uranium and thorium. Much of the extraction in the United States and the world comes from underground gas fields between Amarillo, Texas, and Hugoton, Kansas, where a very high concentration, up to 2%, can be found.

In the 1920s, when blimps were a weapon of war, 90% of the helium extracted in the U.S. went to the Navy’s airship program. In the 1950s, helium became important to the space program. In the 1960s, the Federal Helium Reserve was created. This one-of-kind system stores about more than a third of the world’s helium in crude form in the Cliffside gas field. The porous underground rock spanning portions of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas holds gas like a sponge holds liquid, capped above by calcium anhydrite and on the sides by water.

The reserve continued to build, but by the mid-90s, blimps weren’t a bit part of the military. Congress directed the government out of the helium business with the Helium Privatization Act of 1996. While it did help pay off the cost of the reserve, the quick sell-off at below market prices discouraged private competition as well as conservation of this non-renewable resource.

It was also about the time demand increased. Today helium is back on the Department of the Interior’s list of elements critical to national security, and the United States is a net exporter only of helium and hafnium, used in the manufacture of control rods for nuclear reactors.

Helium’s modern applications come from the fact that it wants very little to do even with other helium atoms. This makes it very stable and very useful in the aerospace industry for guiding missiles, purging fuel lines and pressurizing tanks. It also keeps air bubbles out of fiber optics during manufacture.

Those small atoms and very weak attractive forces between them result in the lowest boiling point of the permanent gases, making it fantastic at cooling things to extremely low temperatures, Liquid helium is used to cool superconducting magnets to just above absolute zero (-452 degrees Fahrenheit) in applications ranging from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines to the Large Hadron Collider.

Congress amended the act in 2013, switching to selling off a portion of the reserve each year to the highest bidder. Despite an approximately $430,000 daily profit, a 2015 Government Accountability Office study found the 2013 act continued to discourage competition in new ways. 2018’s auction went to one company, Pennsylvania-based Air Products. The company also purchased 77% of 2017’s auction.

The future of helium worldwide remains unclear. The federal government is committed to completing the disposal of the Federal Helium System, including the reserve, gas fields, pipeline and all infrastructure by September 2021. Political turmoil in Qatar, the other major source of helium producing natural gas, has also disrupted the industry in recent years.