"No Balloons Due To A Helium Shortage" – that's what the sign said at my local grocery store. Really? How could there be a shortage of helium? Isn't that one of the most-abundant elements in the universe?
I did a quick Google search and found an article from Popular Mechanics -- Why Is There a Helium Shortage?
From that article I learned that Amarillo, Texas, is the hotbed for helium in the U.S. and that the U.S. alone produces 75% of the world’s helium. I also read about the Federal Helium Program, the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve and the politics behind the shortage.
According to the article, "The federal government, which sets helium prices, announced in April that helium prices would spike from $75.75 per thousand cubic feet (Mcf) in FY 2012 to $84 per Mcf in FY 2013. (Last year, prices rose only 75 cents.) This price spike, along with uncertain federal policy (and a peculiar industry setup to begin with), is threatening to create a shortage."
The story notes that in 1996, Congress moved to privatize the federal helium program, requiring all of the government’s helium supplies to be sold off by 2015. The hope was by 2015 that new sources of helium would be online and take up the demand. That's not going so well.
In testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, May 10, 2012, Moses Chan, a professor of physics at Penn State University and a member of the National Research Council’s Committee on Understanding the Impact of Selling the Helium Reserve, explained that ready access to affordable helium is critical to many sectors in academe, industry and government and the range of those uses is quite impressive, enabling research at the coldest of temperatures, weather monitoring, surveillance in areas of combat, and optical fiber production, among many other applications. The diversity in uses for helium arises from its unique physical and chemical characteristics — specifically, its stable electronic configuration and low atomic mass.
The helium shortage would impact the medical field (MRI machines), welding, semiconductor and fiber optics manufacturing in addition to the lift it gives birthday parties.
According to the Popular Mechanics article, "The U.S. Senate is considering a bill (S. 2374) called the Helium Stewardship Act of 2012. It would extend the 2015 deadline for the sell-off of the Federal Helium Program and allow the federal government to continue supplying world markets with helium, selling it at market prices instead of government-set prices."
CP 50 company Air Products and Chemicals, a producer and distributor of helium, based in Allentown, Pa., also weighed in on the topic before the Senate Committee in May. Walter Nelson, director of helium sourcing and supply chain at Air Products said this:
"Congress got it right when it established the federal helium reservoir and the surrounding infrastructure managed by Bureau of Land Management. The system has worked well for decades. Congress got it right yet again in the Helium Privatization Act of 1996 when it set in motion a process for selling off the helium previously captured in the federal reservoir. End users have had helium when they need it, and price and access have been stable. The public does not think much about helium – aside from party balloons and blimps -- because the system has worked so well.
"We believe that with the few changes we recommend to S. 2374, enactment of the Helium Stewardship Act of 2012 would continue this tradition of a system that works so well that hardly anyone even knows it exists. But let the 1996 Act expire without enactment of S. 2374, and helium will be a household term, and not in a good way."
Senior Digital Editor