Understanding the Impending Helium Crisis

by Anupum Pant

There is too much Helium?

Helium is the second most abundant element in the observable universe, present at about 24% of the total elemental mass. Helium is also the second lightest element. So, 24% by mass is too huge a mass for a single light element. It equates to a measure that is probably millions of times more than what humanity could use up in millions of years. Close to about 12 times the mass of all the heavier elements combined, this element will almost never run out. But, that is only when we talk about the universe. Back in Earth, it is completely a different story.

Helium sources for us

On Earth, Helium is relatively rare. It amounts to only a 0.00052% volume of the earth’s atmosphere. Although 0.00052% is not too less, you also can’t consider it as an abundant element. Moreover, extracting Helium from air is almost 10,000 times more costly than fractional distillation (mentioned in the next paragraph). So, all that Helium in air is nearly useless to us till better methods of extraction are invented.
Thankfully, Helium is also present under the surface of the earth. The source of this kind of deposit is, radioactive decays which take place down there. It mixes with the natural gas and is lost to space, if released into the atmosphere. It is separated from natural gas using a process called fractional distillation – The best process to make Helium.

The largest known underground reserve estimated to contain about 10 billion cubic feet of Helium is a federal reserve (mostly under Texas and Kansas). For years US reserves had been the largest global suppliers of Helium (90%). Even today, these reserves contribute to more than 35% of the total global supply. The price of Helium coming from this source has remained almost unchanged for a long time. While during the same period (10 years) privately held Helium prices have tripled. The gap in prices is increasing every day, creating a big distortion in the market.

Helium Usage

Uses of Helium range from manufacturing smart phone screens (all LCD screens) to optical fibers (Internet cables) to health care (MRI scanners) to scientific research etc. [Uses of Helium]

The Problem

Since Helium has been made artificially cheap due to the Helium privatization act, it is popularly believed to be a cheap gas and is wasted a lot. Instead of using it up for important things, we consume it by filling up party balloons, distort voices and other entertaining activities. In fact, the warning issued by the Nobel Prize winner Robert Richardson that Helium could be depleted within a generation, seems to have had no effect on us. We still continue to waste a lot of Helium, release it into the air and keep losing it forever. Not many realize that it is a non-renewable resource.

We have almost reached a crisis already, but it was temporarily averted by the congress. In the future, after about 6-7 years, when the Federal Reserve stops supplying it (at below-market prices), it could be a big problem. I’m not very optimistic about market adjusting within such a small span either. In under a decade, we’ll probably see smart-phone prices, optical fiber prices and health care (MRI scans etc.) prices shoot up precipitously due to this artificial market distortion, if we do not start using Helium properly.