the great helium shortage of 2035?

It turns out that helium is important for more than party balloons and making our voices high and squeaky… and that we may run out of the stuff in spite of the fact that it is the second most abundant element in the universe (after hydrogen).   Amongst atomic element number 2’s many uses are cryogenics (required for MRI scans) and the manufacture of semiconductors, optic fiber and liquid crystal displays.  Here on Earth, there is a finite supply of helium, half of which sits in the US Government’s Federal Helium Program stockpiles.  In 1996, the US Congress decided to mandate that the entire stockpile be sold off by 2015.  The result?  Bargain basement helium prices which encourage waste.  Many of the applications for helium can be designed to recapture and reuse the gas, but since the stuff is so cheap, there is no incentive for users to manage the supplies in a sane manner.  As a result, we could run out of the gas within 25 years.

Currently, there is no commercially viable way to make more helium – our supplies here on Earth are the result of radioactive decay, and extracting helium from the air would result in prices many thousands of times higher than today (think $100 for a single party balloon).  And I shudder to think how much a big screen TV would cost in a helium poor world (now we are talking an emergency the public can understand).

Seems to me that Congress screwed up here and we still have time to fix the problem – simply raise the price of helium to a point where it makes sense to conserve the stuff.   It seems to me that the need for helium is going to grow over the coming years and we are setting ourselves up for a totally avoidable problem – time to write the congress-creatures…


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