The second item on the Periodic Table, helium, is the second most common element in the known Universe (after hydrogen) and makes up just under a quarter of our galaxy’s mass. But while abundant in outer space — stars regularly convert hydrogen to helium in a fusion process known as a proton-proton chain reaction – helium is relatively rare on Earth, at about 5 parts per million. Why this disconnect? On Earth, helium is created much less frequently. Most of the helium on Earth is created by radioactive decay in rocks and most usable gas is trapped underground. While some is available in the air, it’s too expensive to harvest these free-floating elements before they escape the atmosphere. Science has yet to discover a chemical way to produce helium, which is to say that helium may be running out.
That, in a nutshell, is what Robert C. Richardson, a professor of physics at Cornell University (and a Nobel laureate in the same field) asserts. Helium mining was developed sometime around the turn of the last century, and almost immediately, the federal government took to stockpiling the newly available-for-use gas. By 1925, Congress established the Federal Helium Reserve a few miles from Amarillo, Texas; the town later adopted the moniker “Helium Capital of the World.” During both World War II and throughout the Cold War, helium proved to be a tremendous asset — it was used in WWII to gift airships their lift and during the Cold War to help purge rocket fuel. The Helium Reserve, over the course of the last century, grew to house no less than 600 million cubic feet of helium. One estimate suggests that the Reserve has half of the world’s helium stored.
But in 1996, citing the Department of the Interior’s $1.4 billion debt incurred by its central role in the market for helium and a desire to recoup that cost, Congress enacted the Helium Privatization Act. The Act set forth that, from 2005 onward, the government must sell off all its stored helium, aiming to sell off the last amounts by the beginning of 2015. Because of the Act, per Richardson, “helium is far too cheap and is not treated as a precious resource” as the government “[can't] sell it fast enough” otherwise.
Richardson believes that, in order to stem the tide, prices of helium need to rise 20 to 50 times what they are at now in order to stop the world from running out of the gas.
Bonus fact: You may notice in the picture, above, that there’s a person hanging from the center of the helium balloons. He (or she) is engaged in an extreme sport called cluster ballooning, where participants are tethered to dozens of helium balloons, each larger than the typical party balloon but smaller than a hot air balloon, and set skyward.
Related: Amazingly, you can buy helium on Amazon. (Act now before prices go up!)
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