As the Nobel Prize winner in 1996 for his work on superfluidity of Helium, Robert Richardson has issued a warning that our supplies of Helium are being used at an unimaginable rate and could be gone within a generation.
Helium is not only used to fill balloons. It is also used in cooling the superconducting magnets in MRI scanners at hospitals. There’s no substitute because Helium has the lowest boiling point. It’s also required for fiber optics, sea/space exploration, welding, supersonic wind tunnels, cooling nuclear reactors, life-saving medical procedures and diagnostics, cryogenics, laboratory research, lasers, LCD’s (ie, flat screen TVs), rare document preservation and breathing ventilators for infants and the ill.
The price of Helium does not reflect our supply. In 1996 the Helium Privatization Act of the U.S. Congress required the Helium held underground in the West be sold off at a fixed rate until 2015 regardless of market value. This was done to pay off the original cost of the Helium reserve. This U.S. facility called the Amarillo storage facility holds about half of the Earth’s stock of Helium. Currently the U.S. supplies 80% of the world’s Helium demand.
Richardson said it has taken 4.7 billion years for the Earth to accumulate our Helium reserves. The United States’ reserves were purchased in 1925 and will be gone in only a hundred years from getting it.
Once the Helium is released into the atmosphere it is gone forever. There is no chemical way of manufacturing Helium. The reserves the U.S. has came from very slow radioactive alpha decay that occurs in rock. It costs about ten thousand times more to get Helium from the air than it does from rocks and natural gas reserves.
A recent report from the US National Research Council recommends that the US reconsiders its policy on the selling of Helium.
Source: PhysOrg.com, Lin Edwards. The world is running out of Helium: Nobel prize winner.
Doctors want BAN on helium in party balloons over fears of medical shortage of gas
Mirror UK – June 2015
“This invaluable, irreplaceable gas is being literally handed to children in balloons so they can be entertained for a few minutes until they get bored and let go,” he told delegates in Liverpool.
Anaesthetist Dr. Tom Dolphin said using helium in balloons was a “colossal waste” of the element, which is used in MRI scanners and mixed with oxygen to make Heliox to aid people who have difficult breathing.
Up in the Air: The BLM’s Disappearing Helium Program – 2010
Charles G. Groat, Ph.D. and Robert Richardson, Ph.D.
Testimony before the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources
Committee on Natural Resources, U.S. House of Representatives
May 13, 2010
“Our committee concluded that the sell-off has had and will continue to have adverse effects and we developed a series of recommendations to address several outstanding issues with respect to the reserve… If this path continues to be followed, within the next ten to fifteen years the United States will become a net importer of helium whose principal foreign sources of helium will be in the Middle East and Russia.”
Japan taps Siberian helium for medical equipment… and hot air balloons
The Siberian Times – January 2013
“Japan is facing shortages of helium which has led to the urgency to open up new supplies. Prices of the gas have risen sharply in recent years. Some hospitals have been forced to discontinue MRI scans while Tokyo Disney Resort ‘was forced to halt the sale of helium balloons in November for the first time since opening in 1983’.”
Russia Set to Top Helium Supply as U.S. Sells Reserve
Bloomberg Technology – February 2011
“Russia, already the largest producer of crude oil and natural gas, is weighing up plans to become the biggest supplier of helium, the inert gas vital for medical scanners, welding tools and rocket fuel, as the U.S. sells reserves from storage.”
Up in the Air: The BLM’s Disappearing Helium Program – 2013
Moses Chan, PhD and Evan Pugh Professor of Physics
Pennsylvania State University
Testimony before Energy and Natural Resources Committee, U.S. Senate
May 7, 2013
“Helium cliff” is killing the party balloon business
Treehugger – August 2013
These helium party balloons surely rank among the most frivolous products in existence. The prospect of labs around the world disbanding crucial medical and scientific research to make room for crinkly novelty items is stunning in its absurdity.
Helium: A byproduct of the natural gas industry
“Helium’s unique properties make it the perfect gas for many important applications”
Why the World Will Run Out of Helium
“… we should be aware that every time we fill a Helium balloon, we’re taking something that it took the entire natural history of the Earth to create and sending it into the atmosphere…”
Why Is There a Helium Shortage?
Popular Mechanic – June 2012
“As helium reserves tighten, the greatest impact could be on healthcare and small-scale scientific research. For example, a shortage could restrict the ability to obtain an MRI, too, if scanners become difficult to maintain with little helium to be found.”
Is it right to waste Helium on party balloons?
BBC – November 2013
“‘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,’ says Cambridge University chemist Peter Wothers, who has called for an end to helium-filled party balloons.”
Los globos de helio: un lujo que no podemos darnos
BBC – November 2013
“Para algunos científicos, un recurso finito que podría algún día acabarse no debe utilizarse para inflar globos de fiesta.”
Scientist slams use of precious helium in party balloons
The Week, UK – September 2012
“Diminishing helium supplies should be used for life-saving equipment not balloons, says professor”
Should we ban helium balloons?
The Guardian, December 2012