Photo of balloons.
We may face a shortage of helium soon, and soon the price of helium for balloons could skyrocket. CC by Pink Sherbet Photography/Flickr

Helium is a gas that does much more than make your voice sound funny. Solar telescopes and MRI scanners are two of many places where the use of helium in gas or liquid form is important. Unfortunately, the average person only knows that their kids want helium-filled balloons on their birthdays. According to The Independent, helium supplies are on the wane, which will likely cause a price spike. Helium, gentle readers, is on the way out.

Running out of helium will have serious repercussions

The Helium Privatization Act of 1996 was a boneheaded move by the U.S. Congress that opened the floodgates to waste this natural resource. Helium became a cheaper-by-the-dozen resource, which has severely depleted the supply. By 2015, the law will even require the U.S. National Helium Reserve outside Amarillo, Texas, to be sold off. It’s sure to be a fire sale. Similar circumstances exist worldwide for helium, making it seem as though humanity wants to cut off its nose to spite its face.

How could such mismanagement have occurred?

MRI machines used in hospitals require liquid helium in order to cool the mechanism and prevent damage. Homeland security also uses helium in infrared devices aimed at detection and deterrence of terrorism suspects. Birthday balloon people should know that nuclear reactors require helium-3 isotopes in order to operate safely. There are wind tunnels that use helium. NASA even uses helium to safely remove rocket fuel. The risk of explosion is lessened considerably. But it may all be for naught, as The Independent indicates that helium could be gone inside of 30 years.

Helium: From where do you hail?

The Sun’s nuclear fusion creates helium as a by-product. Not only that, but the radioactive decay of various rocks produces helium on Earth. We get helium from the rocks. It can’t be created in any artificial fashion. It has taken 4.7 billion years for natural decay to produce the Earth’s current helium supply, so waiting around for the planet to make more isn’t an option.

Imagining a $ 100 balloon

To slow the depletion of the world’s helium supply, Professor Richardson suggests that the price for helium be raised considerably. Making the gas 20 to 50 times more expensive would definitely attract notice.  A birthday balloon could cost as much as $100.

Find more information on this subject

Helium Privatization Act: http://helium.com/items/874929-understanding-the-helium-privitization-act-of-1996

The Independent: http://independent.co.uk/news/science/why-the-world-is-running-out-of-helium-2059357.html

University of Denver study on helium: http://mysite.du.edu/%7Ejcalvert/phys/helium.htm

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