The world is running out of helium

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blimp with the moon as a backgroundWhat do you think of when you read the word "helium?" Funny voices? Balloons? According to some scientists, you should instead be thinking words like "shortage," "depletion," and "disaster," because the world is running out of helium.

Most of the world's supply of helium is kept at the Cliffside Storage Facility's Bush Dome, a natural underground formation near Amarillo, Tex. While you may be familiar with helium as the gas that holds up Mylar balloons and blimps and gives anyone inhaling it a comical voice, it has many valuable and not easily replaceable uses. The gas is used in welding, in MRIs, in the production of optical fiber, in high-energy accelerators, in liquid-hydrogen rocket propulsion systems, in scientific research and more.

Helium is also rare and not renewable. Most of the world's supply has been produced from natural gas especially rich in helium, from fields in the American Southwest. A 2000 study determined that there are roughly 147 billion cubic feet of proven, economically viable reserves in the world. There is no way that mankind can produce more economically, and that harvesting the helium is not practical.

A large percentage of these supplies have been part of the U.S. National Helium Reserve, legislated into existence in 1925. However, Congress voted to privatize helium supplies with the Helium Privatization Act of 1996. This act required the government to begin selling off its supply of around 30 billion cubic feet in 2005 and be entirely out of the helium business by 2015.

The effect of dumping huge amounts of helium into the open market was predictable; the price has been kept too low to inspire much conservation, even as scientists like Nobel-Prize-winning scientist Robert Richardson predict the depletion of helium on the Earth; some say within 30 years, others by the end of the century. Either way, it's amazing to me that we could run out of an element as useful and fundamental as helium.

From now on, I won't look at those Mylar balloons with so much amusement. And as we run out of helium, their price will float higher and higher.
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