Few birthday parties or grand openings are celebrated without helium-filled balloons bobbing in the breeze — but all that could be changing. According to the New Zealand Herald, the world is experiencing a helium shortage that "is likely to have far-reaching repercussions."
The article cites a 1996 U.S. law that made the gas too cheap to bother recycling. Thus, the world's most commonly used inert gas "is being depleted at an astonishing rate." The world's biggest helium reserve, an underground holding tank beneath Texas, must be sold off by 2015, according to the law. The story goes on to say that the world's entire supply of helium could be gone within 30 years.
While this might sound like merely a glum prediction for children's parties, it could spell disaster for businesses like hospitals that, according to the Herald, cool MRI scanners with liquid helium. Other critical uses of the gas include cooling infrared detectors and nuclear reactors, machinery for wind tunnels, operation of satellite equipment, and cleansing rockets of potentially explosive fuel.
The article identifies the only two ways to create helium: nuclear fusion of the sun or radioactive decay from terrestrial rock. In other words, we can't just make more when we've used it all up. Most of what we have we got as a byproduct of natural gas extraction. The United States began to store helium in 1925, and the newspaper mentions historic uses of helium to power airships and as a way to purge rocket fuel from ballistic missiles.
The Herald newspaper also cites Cornell physics professor Robert Richardson, who says we are not letting the market determine the appropriate price of helium and that "we will dissipate [our helium reserves] in about 100 years. One generation does not have the right to determine availability forever."
According to the article, the Helium Privatization Act was created to help the federal government pay off their investment in the network of pipes used to store our helium reserves. The law indicated that the same amount of helium should be sold every year to whittle down the supply, keeping prices low to ensure high volume of sales. Richardson told the Herald that "helium is far too cheap and is not treated as a precious resource," hence party balloons that cost less than $1 apiece.
Richardson has recommended that the U.S. government reconsider selling off the national helium reserve and to increase the price about 50-fold — enough to make recycling a worthwhile option. The article says birthday balloons should really cost about $100 "to reflect the precious nature of the gas they contain" since, once those balloons deflate, that helium is "lost to the Earth forever.