The world is almost out of helium – be very afraid

A bunch of mylar helium balloons shaped like popular children's characters like Sponge Bob Squarepants and Dora the Explorer.

Sponge Bob has sponged off the world's helium for long enough. (Photo Credit: CC BY-SA/lupinehorror/Flickr)

If you think all helium does is make you sound like Donald Duck, pay attention. From solar telescopes to rockets and MRI cryogenics to deep-sea diving, helium is a vital, non-renewable resource that many take for granted. As long as it’s cheap to fill birthday balloons, most people pay little mind to the gas element. However, as The Independent reports, the second-lightest element in the Universe is quickly slipping from our grasp. The world’s helium supply is dangerously low.

Running out of helium will have serious repercussions

Thanks to a 1996 law passed by the U.S. Congress entitled the Helium Privatization Act, helium’s price was ground into the dirt while the nation’s supply of birthday balloons headed for the stratosphere. Because it’s so cheap to obtain helium, supplies have depleted at an alarming rate. The 1996 law also requires that all the helium in the U.S. National Helium Reserve near Amarillo, Texas, be sold by 2015, regardless of market price. Similar circumstances exist worldwide for helium, making it seem as though humanity wants to cut off its nose to spite its face.

Why so serious, helium?

Hospitals use liquid helium to cool their MRI scanners. Anti-terrorism forces use helium for their radiation monitors and infrared detectors. Nuclear reactors and wind tunnels also utilize helium, the former in helium-3 isotope form. NASA uses it to clean potentially explosive rocket fuel from fuel tanks. All of this, plus festive birthday balloons, could be gone in 25 to 30 years, according to experts surveyed by The Independent.

According to Nobel laureate and Cornell University physics professor Robert Richardson, “Once helium is released into the atmosphere in the form of party balloons or boiling helium, it is lost to the Earth forever.”

From where does helium originate?

Nuclear fusion from the Sun and the slow radioactive decay of terrestrial rock are the two means by which helium is made. Earth’s supply comes from the latter method, of course. Helium cannot be manufactured artificially. Considering that it has taken the Earth approximately 4.7 billion years to produce the world’s helium reserves, waiting for it to come back will be a marathon at best.

That’ll be $100, kid

To slow the depletion of the world’s helium supply, Professor Richardson suggests that the price for helium be raised considerably. If helium becomes 20 to 50 times more expensive than the current rate (15 cubic feet of helium cost about $40 in 2009), motivation to recycle the gas would greatly increase. Thus, in Richardson’s estimation, a helium-filled party balloon should currently cost about $100.


On the Helium Privatization Act of 1996

The Independent

University of Denver study on helium

Mining helium-3 on the moon

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