The U.S. is running out of helium. And it’s not something to make light of.
The largest U.S. helium reserve is depleting as U.S. helium suppliers export the gas to an expanding international market. According to the International Balloon Association, in 2005, U.S. consumption decreased 4.7 percent, while exports increased by 16.9%.
Helium may be abundant in the universe, but it is rare on earth. The helium supply on Earth comes from the radioactive decay of natural uranium and thorium. The decay of these elements is a result of billions of years.
Helium is a limited and nonrenewable resource. Its properties are unique. There are no synthetic alternatives to helium. The United States represents 21% of the world’s known helium reserves. It produces 77% percent of the world’s annual consumption.
The loss of helium supplies will affect more than ballooning aficionados and party planners. Helium is used in producing fiber optic strands and semiconductors. Helium is also used in welding and laser cutting applications. NASA uses large amounts annually to pressurize space shuttle fuel tanks. Because Helium’s molecules are so small, it is used to find extremely small leaks in products such as tires, refrigerators and fire extinguishers.
The price of helium has gone sky-high, increasing 50% over last year’s price. Praxair, Inc., a main supplier of helium, announced in January 2008 another price increase of 20% to 30%. Their competitor has also announced price increases.
How did the U.S. get to the point where we’ve created such a helium shortage?
In 1925, the U.S. government created the Federal Helium Reserve to start stockpiling helium it in an abandoned natural gas field in the Texas Panhandle to use for dirigibles and other defense applications. This turned out to be an important step for World War II; helping the U.S. and their allies develop a critical supply of helium for World War II.
The Helium Act Amendments of 1960 provided incentives to natural gas producers to strip helium from natural gas and sell it to the United States for long-term, strategic storage. This act created a large enough supply of helium to guarantee U.S. industry did not have to turn to foreign sources for helium. Since then, there has been enough helium to sell some of the helium abroad.
The Helium Privatization Act of 1996 was signed by President Clinton on October 9, 1996. This law directed the US Bureau of Land Management’s to stop helium production and to sell all the crude helium stored in the Federal Helium Reserve, estimated to be greater than 29 Billion Cubic Feet of crude helium.
Private helium companies have not made efforts to increase helium recycling. Without changes to how private companies and their customers handle helium, the reserves will be gone in the next 10 years. U.S. industries and federal agencies will then be forced to buy back helium from the same countries we are now selling our limited resources to, but at a much higher price.
Threatening Science And Technology. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2008/01/080102093943.htm
International Balloon Association Helium Fact Sheet, https://www.ibaonline.net/HeliumNewsandInformation/HeliumFactSheet/tabid/107/Default.aspx
Praxair, Helium: Supply is Just the Beginning, http://www.praxair.com/praxair.nsf/0/7860FB926D2BD81385256C76006D98EF/$file/Helium_Brochure.pdf