Up, Up and Away

The Dilemma

For those of you who have a need for balloons in the coming months and quite possibly the coming years, you may find yourself limited to how many balloons you can have and you may notice that you are paying more for less balloons. You just may not be able to get helium filled party balloons at all.

I assure you the sellers are not gouging you in a money grab or that there is a worldwide plot to do away with the nefarious balloon. It is in response to the growing concern of the amount of helium that is left and available to us. 

As I write this, the prices for helium have gone up over 300% in just a year or so. To understand why, you need to understand helium, its market and its various uses. 

What is Helium?

Helium is an element that is abundant in the Universe and while it is the second most abundant element on Earth, it is a limited supply. It can be found on Earth in two places - the atmosphere and in the earth.

Being lighter than oxygen it is not constrained by the laws of gravity and will quickly rise to the exosphere levels of the atmosphere. There is very little in the atmosphere, 5 parts per million by many estimates. Gathering it is a waste of time, it is not time, cost or effort efficient. 

When the Earth was forming billions of years ago it was heavy with unstable elements that decayed. During the process of decay some elements give off a Helium nucleus. It takes millions and millions of years for elements to decay, on average.

A non renewable resource, meaning it is not replacing itself as we use it. Mainly extracted from natural gas deposits, that formed over the course of millions and millions of years, a by product of certain radioactive elemental decay.  Since Helium is highly inert it does not combine with other elements easily. It remains trapped underground (or in rocks). If it is not retrieved properly it can be lost to the atmosphere. 

The bulk of what is available today is found in the Texas Panhandle. But that is not the only place it is found and many other countries are trying to get factories ready. 

What do we use Helium for?

Helium is a very stable, safe inert gas that we use for many things from healthcare to manufacturing to science to retail. More often than not it is used as a coolant in a variety of ways. Nothing on Earth compares to it. 

One of the largest uses of Helium is in healthcare, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI's) use it as a coolant for the superconducting magnets. Without it to act as a coolant, MRI's become expensive and time consuming and possibly dangerous. It's use in medicine quite possibly could cease without anything to replace Helium. 

Balloons(113608)Credit: Lincsgases

Commercially used in the manufacturing of items such as optic fibers and nearly all electronic devices, detecting leaks in high-vacuum and high-pressure equipment, used in rocket fuel, needed for arc-welding, even barcode lasers seen in most Walmarts or grocery stores use Helium.

In scientific endeavours NASA uses it in rocket fuel, pressurizing and purging systems, maintaining controlled atmospheres, divers use it (rarely recreational), gas chromatography and the CERN also use Helium as a coolant. Again just a small list of how Helium is used in science. 

Why is the price of Helium sky rocketing?

Back in 1925 the United States of America Government started to stockpile Helium under the belief of a future role in air travel. They stockpiled billions and billions of liters of this gas which is now nearly depleted. Experts estimate another 25 to 30 years of Helium from this reserve at present rates of use. 

In the 1990's the United States Government began selling off their Helium surplus at dirt cheap rates. If they sold it at market value, a single party balloon would cost closer to $100.00 USD. 

With any commodity when there is rumors or talk of depleted sources of a non renewable resource, the value goes sky rocketing. Particularly when there is little to no hope of a new supply being discovered and with no recycling programs in force. 

University of Alberta physicist John Beamish states "I think at present, it's not really a shortage, but its clear that in the long-term - in about ten to twenty years - there will be a worldwide shortage and prices will go up even higher. 

Some believe that by keeping Helium at higher cost, will encourage people who use it, to maximize their use of it by implementing processes that can capture those small amounts that escape and be put back into the process. 

Price Increases

Can we get more Helium?

There are other sources of Helium, they are just not easy to get to.

The universe is abundant with Helium. Solar winds are full of Helium, so is the soil on the moon as testing on moon rock has shown it rich with Helium.

We can't forget the 5 parts per million Helium in the exosphere. Between these two choices, many scientists believe mining the moon would be the best choice, too little in the exosphere to make it feasible option. 

With the present uses and usage of Helium we will need a new source. 

What can we do?

There are a number of things that could be done on a small and large even global scale. 

  • A non renewable resource should not be dirt cheap. And responsible use of it, including limiting waste. If Helium is very low cost, there is no incentive to recycle or even keep waste in check. 
  • As individuals we need to be more aware and responsible of our own personal use of Helium. No more squandering it on $5 party balloons and squeaky voice tricks, it's just not a very responsible of us. 
  • Commercially and in the laboratories of science, both need to do all they can to maximize the use of present Helium supplies. More time, money and effort towards finding new sources and research and development. As well as recycling methods.

Earth is out of Helium

A very simple breakdown for the non scientist.

Fear Mongering

I am not trying to create a panic, or use fear to get a mob mentality going. I am hoping that after reading and hopefully understanding better the need for Helium in many important industries, that you shall be inspired to be more aware and responsible in regards to Helium and put the squeaky voice tricks away with the party balloons.