Though helium is one of the most abundant elements in the universe, second only to hydrogen, on Earth it is extremely rare. Some scientists are concerned that one day soon helium will be gone for good. Andrea Sella, a chemist from University College London explains, “All of the other elements we’ve scattered around the globe, maybe we can go digging in garbage dumps to get them back. But helium is unique. When it’s gone it is lost to us forever.”
Helium’s uses are versatile and can be used for things like cryogenics and airport security scanners. It’s lighter than air which makes it perfect for filling party balloons. Helium has the lowest boiling point of any element, just above absolute zero. Because of this unique property, helium can be used as a cooling agent for sensitive electronic equipment and superconductors, such as MRI scanners. Helium is also chemically inert which means that it doesn’t react with other chemicals to form new compounds. This neutrality allows it to be used to improve safety and stability in welding and rocket fuel systems where the risk of explosions is high.
Helium is formed by the decay of radioactive rocks in the earth’s crust. The gas accumulates in natural gas deposits and is collected. However, most of the helium in the Earth’s atmosphere leaks out into space. To collect the helium, one must tap into these air pockets that have been trapped underground. The process is a complex and expensive one and until the 1960s, the The US government was the only major helium producer on the planet. In 1996, the government decided to share their helium stocks with the rest of the world.
Still, 35% of the world’s restricted helium supply remains in a reserve in Amarillo, Texas. Its distribution of helium has been more selective since the shortage began in 2012. Party Connection & Costume co-owner Peter Delo said, “Even in the last month, we’ve had to turn away business because we won’t have enough helium.”
According to the BBC, the price of helium has doubled over the past 10 years. Since 2012, the price of the average helium tank has increased more than 60%. Delo isn’t the only party supply distributor who has taken a hit. Linda DeBord, 60, runs a business from her home called Balloons by Design. The Yakima Herald, of Washington State, reports that “DeBord usually gets tanks that hold 240 cubic feet of helium capable of filling 400 to 500 11-inch or 12-inch latex balloons. Two years ago, such a tank would have cost her $69. Now she pays upwards of $160.”
Though the world’s dwindling helium supply is far from front page news, it is still something to be mindful of. Peter Wothers of Cambridge University urges us to be more aware. “We’re going to be looking back and thinking, I can’t believe people just used to fill up their balloons with it, when it’s so precious and unique. It is something we need to think about.”