Have you tried to get party balloons recently or say build that blimp you’ve always been dreaming about sailing around the good old US of A? If you have, you’ve probably noticed there is a decided lack of helium to be had. I’m not kidding, the other day we had to call around to five places, party supply stores mind you, to find one that actually had helium and was willing to fill balloons, it wasn’t cheap. No one, and I mean no one had enough helium for my blimp. It actually turns out there is a helium shortage in the United States.
Big deal you say, it’s just helium. That’s what I thought too, until I started actually looking into the situation to find out why there was no helium to be had. Turns out helium is a non-renewable resource and we can’t manufacture it. Helium is a natural by-product of the decay of terrestrial rock and we distill it from natural gas. The only way we actually have of making helium is producing tritium and through its rapid decay harvesting He-3. That is all fine and dandy, but it is really expensive to produce. I suppose it doesn’t make much difference as we can produce hydrogen quickly and cheaply and it is almost as good as helium. Of course, that will mean that blimp you’ve always wanted will really be the Hindenburg 2.0. Additionally, you’ll want to have those parties with balloons outside and if one gets too close to the cake someone will have to yell hit the deck before the balloon and cake detonate, spraying everyone nearby with flaming cake shrapnel. But could it be worse than that?
Yes, yes it could. Helium has a lot of industrial uses and some of them are very important. Helium is crucial in liquid form to cool super magnets, MRI machines, infrared detectors, and nuclear reactors. What? Oh yeah, there are at least two of those I would be highly hesitant about trying to replace with hydrogen. Helium is also used in deep-sea diving, maintaining large telescopes, and cleaning rocket engines among other things. I won’t go into all helium’s industrial uses but you’re getting the point. Really, we should be blaming congress.
Congress back in 1996 passed a law that essentially made helium too cheap to recycle and of course why recycle when you can buy it for a fraction of the price. Congress also mandated the US National Helium Reserve, yes there is such a thing opened in 1925 near Amarillo, TX to store helium for military use, be sold off by 2015. This is or was the largest reserve of helium in the world and congress is demanding it be frittered away. I’m not really surprised. But remember yesterday’s post about gas getting more expensive so Delta bought an oil refinery? Maybe it’s time to start hoarding helium, maybe squirrel away a few tanks. It could be worth a hell of a lot in a relatively short time.