Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s a helium-filled balloon escaping. Better enjoy the sight now, because that view is becoming increasingly less common. Why? There’s a worldwide helium shortage serving as a party pooper for many celebrations where balloons are an important part of the festivities. Decorating with balloons is no longer a gas because helium prices are way up and helium supplies are way down. What’s going on?
Knowing a little about what helium is and how it is used is a good start. For all of us non-scientific types, helium is an inert gas whose chemical symbol is He. (Aside: Is that a gender neutral designation?) The gas is odorless, colorless, and tasteless as well as nontoxic and nonflammable. Helium is stable and doesn’t react with other elements. It occurs with other gases in the ground. Ho hum!
Although the gas sounds boring, it is actually the life of a party. Not only is it used to fill the balloons floating about the party site, but it can provide loads of entertainment if someone inhales the gas and then tries to speak. Just think of Donald Duck’s voice, and you’ll understand the effect.
The biggest consumer use of helium is in party supplies. Helium is lighter than other gases, which makes helium-filled balloons go up. Without helium there would be no weather balloons or Goodyear blimps. Think of helium as the yeast of the balloon world. It is what makes things rise.
In addition to its crucial use in the party planning business, helium is also an essential ingredient in medical and aerospace technology, In fact, there is no alternative to helium to keep magnetic resonance imaging (“MRI”) machines running. The gas is used as a coolant for MRI’s and is a critical component for operating atom smashers. Helium is also effective for use in rocket engines because it doesn’t burn. Who knew how versatile and important helium is? Not me.
Interestingly, helium is the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen. So why, then, are we facing a worldwide helium shortage? Shouldn’t the gas be plentiful? At its most basic, the reason for the shortage is supply and demand. (Yea! I can understand economics better than science.) Helium is being used up faster than it can be produced. That’s pretty straightforward. Shouldn’t we just produce more of it to solve the problem?
Alas, the solution isn’t that easy. Unlike hydrogen, helium cannot be manufactured. It exists in the Earth’s atmosphere, but most of that helium simply floats off into space because the gas is so light. That gas is out of our reach just like the balloon which has escaped from a child’s grasp.
Helium used for industrial purposes, however, comes from the ground rather than from the air. It is a byproduct of natural gas production. Ninety-seven percent of the world’s helium is a “waste product” obtained when liquefied natural gas is produced or natural gas is processed. “More waste product please,” consumers are chanting.
Unfortunately, helium is a non-renewable resource. The gas is produced very slowly under the Earth’s crust when uranium and thorium decay leaving pockets of the gas trapped near reserves of natural gas and oil. The helium comes from the ground mixed with natural gas in varying concentrations and must be separated from the natural gas. It is expensive to separate helium from natural gas and then to store it. The cost is as high as that helium-filled balloon floating up in the sky.
Production of helium is even more complicated than simply separating it from natural gas. To produce it, one has to find where helium is in the Earth first. And that’s a guessing game. Almost all of the known helium reserves on Earth were found by accident. Apparently we can put a man on the moon, but we can’t find helium right here on Earth.
Currently, helium cannot be produced efficiently and economically. Helium supplies are particularly low lately because existing sources are dwindling and new production projects have been delayed. (Aside: Is ANY construction project EVER finished on time?) The number of helium plants has shrunk since 2006 just like a deflating balloon. Party City is not partying as a result of this situation; its bottom line has taken a big hit due to helium supply pressures, and it has closed a number of stores.
Who is producing helium? The U.S. provides 75% of the world’s helium, and the Texas Panhandle is the helium capital of the U.S. A massive helium reserve, not so creatively known as the Federal Helium Reserve, is located across Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas; that reserve is set to close down production in 2021. Qatar produces another 30% of the world’s helium; new production sites are set to open there in 2020. Russia is also scheduled to begin new helium production in 2021. Produce that waste product people!
According to reports, this is the third global helium shortage in the past fourteen years. Enquiring minds want to know why the general public is ignorant about this important problem. The media assaults us on a daily basis with fluffy news about celebrity goings on, but they can’t take the time to tell us we about to be out of gas–helium, that is. What’s wrong with this picture?
We need to get on the stick to address the issue of the current helium shortage. Scientists indicate that, at current consumption rates, the world’s estimated helium supply will only last another 200 years. What will future generations do to party if they can’t decorate with balloons? If they can’t have MRI’s to diagnose medical problems? If they can’t smash atoms? A rosy future may be about to burst like a pin going into a helium-filled balloon.
Are helium-filled balloons a decorating essential at your celebrations? Were you aware a global helium shortage is ongoing? How concerned are you about the depletion of resources here on Earth?