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...
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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.