Helium is the second most abundant element in the known universe. So why are we reading headlines about how the earth is running out of Helium?
When a renowned US balloon company, Party City announced its financial results for the first quarter of 2019, the company also announced it would be closing 45 of its 870 stores.
Party City said the closures were unrelated to the Helium shortage but at the time CEO James Harrison said a lack of Helium was hurting its balloon business and as a result, its bottom line.
It’s not just Party City bearing the brunt of the Helium shortage. A lot of big industries have a lot at stake, from tech to health care.
Here’s why the world’s supply of Helium is running short.
Helium was identified in 1868 by French Astronomer Pierre Janssen, almost unintentionally.
While looking at the sun’s ray during a solar eclipse, Janssen noticed a strange yellow light coming from the surface of the sun. It was something we didn’t have a name for yet.
The name came when British Astronomer Norman Lockyer also observed the same yellow light being emitted.
He named the newly-discovered element Helium, after Helios, the Greek god of the sun.
And while party balloons may be the most well-known use of Helium, it’s not the most common.
Helium is a noble gas which means it’s nonreactive, nonflammable and on Earth, it has no color or smell. In its liquid form, Helium can reach extremely low temperatures without freezing, which makes it incredibly useful for many scientific purposes.
Liquid Helium is used as refrigerant for the superconducting magnets that are basically the guts of an MRI scanner. So that’s the largest application and the one that many people don’t realize that there’s Helium involved when they are getting a MRI scan.
It cleans fuel tanks on rockets, it’s used in optical fibers to bring internet to the masses, to manufacture semiconductors and a lot more.
So, what’s at the root of the Helium shortage?
The shortage is mostly due to the fact that existing source of Helium have been in decline or have been depleted partially. So the shortage is really more about supply going down and the demand going up as the world deals with chips shortages and tech giants scrambling for Helium.
Helium might be incredibly abundant in the universe, but it’s rare on Earth and extremely difficult to capture.
It’s a non-renewable resource and it’s mostly found in underground chambers, where radioactive decay causes Uranium to release Helium into natural gas reserves over millions of years.
Oil companies extract Helium through a process known as fractional distillation, where natural gasses are broken down into their individual elements to isolate the Helium.
But once the company have the Helium, it’s nearly impossible to store it without leaking. And once the Helium is in the atmosphere, it easily escapes into space.
The United States has been the largest producer of Helium since 1925, thanks to a massive reserve found between Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas – fittingly named the Federal Helium Reserve.
Recently though, the tiny nation of Qatar has grown to become the second largest exporter of Helium in the world. But recent political tensions and embargoes in the region forced the state-owned natural gas company, RasGas, to shutter its Helium plants in 2017, thereby choking the global supply chain.
Tensions have since cooled, but RasGas merged with QatarGas in 2018 and limitations still exist for the region.
The embargo of Qatar was in place before diplomatic ties were restored in January this year, meaning it will take some time before supply of Helium is restored.
This is not the first Helium scare in recent years. In 1996, the United States passed the Helium Privatization Act. It ordered the US government to sell off the entire Federal Helium Reserve.
The plan was to sell the Helium at a fixed price rather than at auction. This ensured that the gas would sell quickly but most likely to be used wastefully.
Nearly two decades later, in 2012, experts warned of dire consequences due to dwindling Helium supplies. So a year later, Congress passed the Helium Stewardship Act, which required Helium to be sold at auction rather than at a fixed price.
This won’t do anything to stop the intended depletion of the Federal Helium Reserve which is still expected to close down production this September.
In the past, new Helium reserves were discovered by accident but geologists are beginning to research new ways to find Helium reserves under the earth’s surface.
There is a lot of exploration going on in the Four Corners area of the Southwestern United States and there is also some exploration going on in Montana.
The goal is to keep MRIs powered up, the internet flowing and your party balloons from falling flat.