Is the party over for party balloons?
In August, the Rutherford Laboratories in Oxfordshire, a research facility which costs £30,000 per day to operate, stood idle for a day because it couldn't obtain supplies of Helium, despite it being the second most common element in the universe. The price of helium is affecting more than just party balloons.
Helium is common in the universe but rare on earth. It is also non-renewable. It is an incredibly inert gas. We can't make it, it isn't bound into ores or minerals, and the only place we find it is trapped in underground gas pockets. When helium is released into the atmosphere, it is so light that the earth's gravity is insufficient to retain it and drifts off into space to be lost forever. Some people erroneously attribute the loss of helium to global warming, but it is completely unrelated.
Helium was first detected during oil drilling in Kansas, barely a hundred years ago, and vast quantities of it were found under the Great Plains of North America in volumes that dwarf the supplies of it we have found elsewhere and the US supplies between 80% and 90% of all the world's helium. Back in the early twentieth century it was thought that airships would be strategically important in times of war for aerial reconnaissance and bombing missions. The US government declared helium a strategic national resource, put it under the control of the US military in 1925, and set up the National Helium Reserve at Amarillo, Texas to stockpile helium supplies in a colossal underground cavern.
After the second world war, demand for Helium was growing, as was its range of applications. It was still used for military purposes, as a non-flammable gas for barrage balloons, but it also became important as a refrigerant used to produce the liquid oxygen used in the intercontinental ballistic missiles, and was used in vast quantities by NASA as a cleaner for rocket engines. It is also used in specialist welding, in ultra-deep sea diving bells, and for high-altitude weather balloons. And of course, it is used in party balloons which today accounts for 5% of all helium usage worldwide, as well as its quite wasteful usage in carnival floats.
By 1995, the Amarillo storage unit had accumulated about a billion cubic meters of the gas and a billion dollars of debt. Congress privatised the industry and set the objective that it had to sell off the reserves by 2015 by which time it thought other sources of helium would have been discovered to meet demand. Helium was sold at giveaway prices and this, in turn, fuelled demand. In August of this year it was announced that the US helium reserve could be closed down as early as 2013 after which we will all need to rely on freshly recovered helium from gas and oil drilling. At current usage rates, the USA will soon become a net importer of helium, the only significant alternative supplies are the oil fields of Russia, Algeria and Qatar. Some analysts predict the world will run out of helium entirely in as little as twenty years or thirty years. Others say that's wrong, and we've really got 50 years before its gone forever.
As a result of this policy, the world is now facing a helium shortage and that's hitting far more than the party balloon market. Helium is vital for creating the supercooled conditions needed in nuclear research and for cooling particle accelerators such as the ring at Cern. No other element can supercool things the way helium can. The amount of helium used by scientific research is negligible compared to all the other uses of helium, yet labs around the world have had to postpone research due to helium shortages and escalating prices. If nothing else, we need to protect some supplies to allow research to continue.
Over the last 20 years, numerous uses of helium have emerged in the high-tech industries. It is used, for example, to create the supermagnets used in electronics fabrication, helium lasers are used in barcode readers, it is used to fill high-speed disk drives so they can spin even faster, and the gas is used to create a pure and inert atmosphere when making the bubble-free fibre-optic cables that the internet depends on. The most significant usage of all, (and the biggest growth in usage) is that helium is needed to supercool MRI scanners, and just like science labs, hospitals are now having to reduce or postpone MRI scans due to helium shortages and rising prices. The price has risen by 20% in the last few months yet even that is a fraction (perhaps 1%) of its true value.
This should be a major issue, but whilst news stories about cancelled operations appear in the press, it never quite gets the publicity it deserves. There are exceptions. Recently the US press was reporting on the helium crisis with the headline "Helium shortage threatens time-honored Nebraska tradition". In American Football, the Nebraska Huskers football team has a "tradition" of releasing helium filled red balloons after the first touchdown of the game. This forty-year old practice had to be put on hold due to the helium shortage. It was reported that the stadium would, for a final time, release a "paltry 2,500 helium balloons" after the first touchdown of the opening match, (instead of the normal 5,000), and then terminate this tradition forever. This was because of costs, and due to severe shortages of helium at local hospitals. However, such was public outrage at this killjoy attitude that the team is now reporting "We took another look at the helium inventory issue and how filling our gameday balloons might affect hospital levels of liquid helium, and we found that the risk really was not there."
Footage of a Husker's balloon celebration
We need to start making hard decisions. Do we want party balloons now, or do we want scientific research and MRI scanners in twenty years time?
24th September 2012
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