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Monday, 30 December 2019

Why Are There Helium Shortages Throughout History? We're In One Right Now




More helium than you can shake a stick at. (New York Post)
Hearing the sentence "There's a shortage of X" can invoke real fear, depending on what the X stands for. If you're on an airplane and there's a shortage of oxygen, that's a cause for concern. A beer shortage at a college party may inspire an all-out panic. One element you would never expect to find in short supply, however, is helium at a Party City.
Nevertheless, that's precisely what is happening right now, and to make matters worse, this is the third global helium shortage in the past 14 years. Here's the story of the great helium shortages of the 21st century.  
How will Snoopy get his wings? (Variety)

Is There Really Not Enough Helium?

To be fair, we've experienced helium shortages long before this century. In 1958, no lesser an institution than the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was forced to use plain old air to inflate their cartoon balloons due to a helium shortage. However, helium supplies have dwindled even more precariously over the last 20 years. Joseph DiVerdi, a chemist at Colorado State University who requires liquid helium for his research, is in a particularly uncertain position. "My situation is analogous to treading near the edge of a treacherous cliff," he informed Physics Today
The joy of helium. (Variety)

Where's My Helium?

The problem lies in the fact that just about all the helium in the world (97% of it, to be exact) is produced as a byproduct of natural gas production. Essentially, no one just makes helium, and those who do provide our precious party gas are giant power companies who are more concerned with the processing of their primary element than party balloons and Chipmunk impressions. As such, in times when there aren't any large natural gas projects in progress, the helium supply takes a massive hit. According to Steve Dumford, owner of a balloon business in London, "Prices just keep going up and up.” Dumford also said the cost rose three times between 8% and 10% during 2019.
The Bureau of Land Management, purveyors of helium. (Bureau of Land Management)

The Problem

The crux of the great helium shortage is the problem of storage. Helium just so happens to be incredibly difficult and expensive to store. Fun helium fact: It's the coldest substance on Earth, and the slightest temperature increase turns it into a gas. Even when kept as a liquid, it still boils off bit by bit. One of the few who can store helium, the Bureau of Land Management, does so by compressing it at the surface before burying it 3,000 ft. underground beneath a thick layer of salt. Such a facility is not exactly within Party City's budget.
Ballon animals do set off a party. (Bored Panda)

More Than A Party Favor

The helium shortage may be a bummer the next time you graduate from something, but helium also serves in far more important capacities. MRI machines use helium to cool their superconducting magnets, and NASA uses it to keep satellite instruments cool and clean out the hydrogen-powered Apollo space vehicles.
Liquid helium is vital to the function of MRI machines. (Diagnostic Imaging)

A Vital Auction

The U.S. government's national reserve is the world's largest helium supplier, which gives them quite a lot of power in the noble gas world. That's why, in 2013, they set up a private auction system in which party companies, chemical researchers, and hospitals all vie for the right to purchase the precious element. The auction itself drove up the price, but to make matters worse, they haven't held one since that year and won't again until 2021. Such a long gap forces anyone who's after some helium to search far and wide and pay a lot more than they'd like.
Party City has reassured its ravenous customer base that they have partnered with a more reliable helium supplier to fulfill the usual demand for floating balloons, but it's worth considering whether we should wean ourselves off the stuff. After all, balloons are neat, but they're not as neat as health care.

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