Within nine years the National Helium Reserve will be depleted,
according to an article in Science Daily. It quotes Dr. Lee Sobotka, of
Washington University in St. Louis: ‘Helium is non-renewable and
irreplaceable. Its properties are unique and unlike hydrocarbon fuels
(natural gas or oil), there are no biosynthetic ways to make an
alternative to helium.
The nation’s supply of helium — the gas that has given rise to millions
of party balloons and Donald Duck voices — is dwindling. In fact, the
managers of the nation’s lone helium reserve, in Texas, expect it to be
depleted within 10 years.
"It’s a bad pun, and I’ve used it before, but the nation’s demand for
helium has just ballooned in recent years," said Hans Stuart, a
spokesman for the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management, which oversees
the federal helium reserve near Amarillo.
Medicine, industry and science depend heavily on helium. It plays a
significant role in nuclear magnetic resonance, welding, fiber optics
and computer microchip production. NASA uses large amounts annually to
pressurize space shuttle fuel tanks.
The helium pinch is already being felt in St. Louis and other major
cities in the United States. Balloon retailers in the area say that one
supplier actually ran out of the gas for about a week this fall,
leaving them to scramble for additional helium tanks.
"The price has definitely gone up, and its availability has been in
question," said Popsicle the Clown, also known as Kathy Landess of St.
Louis. "I don’t think everyone realizes it’s a natural resource."
Because of the shortage and the growing demand, helium prices have
skyrocketed. The average liter of liquid helium today is about $5, a 50
percent increase from a year ago, buyers say.
And last week, Praxair Inc., a major worldwide supplier of helium,
announced it was increasing prices 20 percent to 30 percent. A
competitor announced a increase last month.
"We have to be thinking of these things," said Lee Sobotka, a chemistry
and physics professor at Washington University. "Up to now, the issue
often hasn’t risen to the level that it’s important. It’s a problem for
the next generation of scientists. But it’s incumbent upon us to have a
vision, and tell it like it is — a resource that is more strictly
nonrenewable than either oil or gas."
The planet’s helium supply has been built up over billions of years
from the decay of uranium and thorium. Helium exists as a gas but can
become a liquid at very low temperatures.
Known for its unique stability, helium can be found in many of the
world’s natural gas fields including those in Kansas, Oklahoma,
Algeria, Canada and Russia.
In 1925, the U.S. government began buying helium and stockpiling it in
an abandoned natural gas field in the Texas Panhandle, primarily to use
in dirigibles, airships widely used before 1940. It decided to get out
of the business almost 70 years later when private sector uses began
dwarfing its own.
"It’s estimated there is about 22 billion cubic feet left in the
reserve last year, and last year we sold about 2.1 billion cubic feet,"
Stuart said. "When you consider the reserve supplies 45 percent of all
U.S. supplies and about one-third worldwide, that’s significant."
Adding to the growing helium crunch is the fact that two overseas
plants expected to go online last year have stalled, Stuart said. Some
major U.S. companies that supply helium also have shuttered.
As the supply shrinks, many industrial helium users are calling for its
conservation to help stretch the national reserve beyond its
Sobotka said laboratories could make better attempts at conserving
helium by using machines called liquefiers that can capture, store and
reliquefy helium on site. Some large research facilities — like Argonne
and Oak Ridge National Laboratories — already have that capability.
At Washington University, helium is used in several laboratories at a
cost of "several tens of thousands of dollars" a year, Sobotka said.
There, it is recaptured, but sent off-site for reliquefication.
"The government had the good vision to store helium, and the question
now is: Will industry have the vision to capture it when extracting
natural gas and consumers the wisdom to capture and recycle?" Sobotka
Balloon retailers, which use about 7 percent of the national supply, are already promoting conservation.
The International Balloon Association, a Wichita, Kan.-based group of
balloon manufacturers and distributors, is asking its members to
consider alternatives to helium, such as good, old-fashioned air,
particularly for balloons that don’t have to float. It’s also promoting
products that can extend the float time of a balloon and decrease
helium use by about 25 percent.
"I think lately the message has been all doom and gloom, so many people
are already at that point," said Marty Fish, the association’s
executive director. "But education can really help until the helium
Troy Apprill, owner of Balloonville Productions in St. Louis, said he
has been incorporating air-filled balloons in his designs for some time.
He says those balloons often can give an effect similar to those filled with helium in most designs.
Still, Apprill and other St. Louis-area balloon-based business owners haven’t been shielded from price increases.
"Sometimes customers are a little surprised by the price, but it
doesn’t prevent them from wanting a fun arrangement," he said. "It’s
sort of like price increases with things like gasoline or bread, or
milk. People don’t stop buying them."