No Balloons For You! Helium Prices Set To Skyrocket

A worldwide shortage of helium will cause prices to inflate by as much as 3000% over the coming decade, scientists have warned. And you thought children's parties were expensive now...

Sad clown picture from Shutterstock

For most of us, the usefulness of helium is limited to party balloons and Mickey Mouse impressions — but the chemical element is actually essential to various scientific industries, particularly when it comes to liquid cooling. Indeed, the children's party staple has been instrumental to everything from long range missile deployment to the US Apollo Space program.

Today, helium continues to play a hugely important role in high-tech industries, medical research and experimental science such as quantum computing. Practical applications include radio astronomy, mineral and oil deposit exploration and particle acceleration to name just a few examples.

Unfortunately, helium reserves are dwindling at an alarming rate and demand is expected to outstrip supply over the coming decade. Because helium leaves the Earth’s atmosphere after being used it cannot be recycled like some other gases.

This means that the world is reliant on existing stockpiles which mainly reside in the US (with canny foresight, the US government has been stockpiling helium since the First World War). In addition, stronger demand from developing nations such as China is expected to exacerbate the issue even further.

"We are going to see helium rationing coming in the very near future," Brent McInnes, director of the John de Laeter Centre for Isotope Research at Curtin University explained during a media briefing about the crisis. "...As reserves dry up, the true [market] price will kick in and the price will go up ten, twenty or thirty times its current value"

In a bid to combat this problem, researchers from CSIRO and Macquarie University have developed an onsite recovery system which will allow 90 percent of spent helium to be recovered from Magnetoencephalography (MEG) imaging machines used to study children’s brain development.

While this wont have an affect on the dwindling supply issue, it should help to lessen the financial burden facing helium-reliant health applications in Australia.

For the average person, floating balloons will be the most visible casualty of the upcoming helium shortage. With prices expected to hit the stratosphere, the popular retail practice of handing out free balloons to kiddies is likely to fade away like the gas itself. The mass-release of balloons to mark special occasions like weddings and funerals is also likely to fall out of fashion. Better enjoy it while you still can.


Comments

    Great that such a scarce resource has been used so carefully (balloons).
    I didn't know that it left the atmosphere. That is the ultimate in non-renewable resources.
    Luckily for me, 4 years ago I bought shares in the company that controls the gas wells in the US that have the helium.

    Just fill the balloons with hydrogen, we have plenty of that, right? I don't see at all how that could be an issue >_>

    Last edited 30/07/13 1:00 pm

      Doesn't hydrogen have a higher potential to catch fire? Not sure that's something you'd want in huge quantities at a children's party.

        That's the joke.

          Oops. My 'deadpan humour' radar is playing up today.

            I see I managed to miss the last character in my emote which was meant to give away the absurdist humour. Apologies, and fixed! ^^;

        Uhh. why? Would give you an excuse to leave the party early!

        Yes, you wouldn't use it for kiddies balloons but the technology has been around for decades to use it safely in dirigibles etc...

    there goes the pastime of the high pitched helium voice (without aid of auto tune that is)

    No more noisy kids parties at the pub and no more children popping balloons? A brighter future for all!

    Sucks about the industrial use though. Time for scientists to discover a new helium alternative..

    Last time i got helium balloons for a party, i felt ripped off as Lombards mixed it with air so you cant even make high pitched voices, by next morning they are floating at face level. I couldn't even say the last time i actually had a purely helium filled balloon.

    2nd most abundant element in the universe? A extractable component in natural gas?

    "It is estimated that if cost was not an issue, the amount of helium gas trapped in current and future gas wells worldwide could last between 200 or 300 years."

    http://phys.org/news/2013-04-probing-helium.html

    Do people ever check these "The super-Mars will be bigger than the moon type" email spams before reporting?

      It's not about helium "running out". The issue is that existing US stockpiles are dwindling which is causing prices to rise. This isn't a conspiracy theory, it's accepted fact.

        Dwindling is misleading.

        The USA is selling it's unwanted stockpiles at below mining cost with the reserves desired to be gone by 2015, at which point the price will be correct and not a firesale/dumping price.

        At that point mining can come in and mine for 200 years or so.

        That is not 'helium-rationing-imminent'

          Well, according to the quoted professor, rationing is set to occur "in the very near future". Just because you can mine more of something doesn't mean prices and quantities won't be affected in the short-term future.

            I thought I remembered reading something about how the 'we are running out of helium' hysteria was not true.

            Well done Jayd.

            With a supposed 3000% increase, those enterprising mining companies should be gearing up right now.

    Investment strategy: put all your money into a warehouse full of helium balloons. In ten years, you can corner the special occasions market.

    (we can actually obtain plenty more helium, it's just that nobody really bothered until recently because the US government was selling it off for crazy cheap prices. It's a common byproduct of natural gas mining, but is usually wasted because the US made it unprofitable to collect and resell.)

    (also worth knowing: the US reserves was for military blimps, so they could stay well-provisioned in the upcoming blimp war.)

      (also worth knowing: the US reserves was for military blimps, so they could stay well-provisioned in the upcoming blimp war.)
      You laugh, but Kirov Airships are devastating.

      Investing in helium balloons would probably not work well, as the helium tends to leak out through... pretty much anything. It's the main reason why helium balloons deflate over time.

      The US maintains its reserve in an exhausted natural gas field.

      One thing we do have to think about, for the long term at least - as helium is extracted from natural gas, where will we get it from once gas reserves are exhausted? The date for that can't really be pinpointed due to the possibility of undiscovered reserves, but it's probably less than a century away.

    The scientist / author seem to lack basic economics; if the prices inflate by 3000% there will be a pretty large incentive to find and develop new helium resources. Supply doesn't remain static when there are price shocks that large.

    The same sort of thing is happening at the moment with shale gas and tar sands - as the price of oil go up more effort goes into unconventional sources and finding new deposits.

    Deep water divers also use helium in their gas tanks to reduce nitrogen narcosis. Could make that industry a lot more expensive or dangerous.

      if helium gets too expensive, it should be replaceable for deep technical (>70m) diving with neon, argon, krypton, etc., as it's just there to act as a "filler" so you don't breathe in too much oxygen.

      in any case, the vast bulk of He is used in space, medicine & science... only a tiny proportion is used for "frivolous" reasons like diving & party balloons.

      if helium gets too expensive, it should be replaceable for deep technical (>70m) diving with neon, argon, krypton, etc., as it's just there to act as a "filler" so you don't breathe in too much oxygen.

      dive facts tangent:
      it's not about nitrogen narcosis - current understanding is that you can get narcosis with any gas mix, the real reason for using He is that as the partial pressure of oxygen exceeds 1.6, the risk of oxygen toxicity increases dramatically - at 70m ppO2 is 1.68 (8 times the amount of oxygen we receive on the surface, and the equivalent of 168% oxygen). Using He reduces the volume of oxygen in the gas a diver breathers, eg from 79% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, to 79% nitrogen, 15% oxygen, 6% hydrogen, which at 100m is the equivalent of 150% oxygen at the surface....

      in any case, the vast bulk of He is used in space, medicine & science... only a tiny proportion is used for "frivolous" reasons like diving & party balloons.

    Perhaps the first country to crack sustained Thermonuclear Hydrogen fusion will make a fortune cornering the Helium market?

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