Somehow our family missed the national helium shortage. That changed this week, when we were unable to pre-order balloons at our local Party City.
The clerk erroneously told us he thought helium was leaking somewhere. Actually, because of artificially low, federally set prices, private suppliers are not capturing and refining more of it while the government is selling off its reserves. "The price structure is too low," says Northwestern University physics professor William Halperin. "The demand is too high."
Why? "It's not just party balloons," says Halperin. Over the past half century, demand has skyrocketed, thanks to helium-using computer factories, military rockets, and MRI machines.
Everyone wants it – but not enough companies are making it available. That's a problem – as Jon Stewart and correspondent Aasif Mandvi noted in a 2010 helium-crisis segment, called "Gas Hole," on "The Daily Show." In it, Mandvi asked Halperin, "So there will be no more party balloons?" The helium expert's response: "That's where we're going."
The shortage is even affecting national holiday celebrations. Earlier this month, the San Jose Mercury News ran the headline, "Global helium shortage threatens to deflate holiday parties, parades," for a story that led with Fremont, Calif., doing without a 50-foot helium balloon for its Fourth of July parade.
So what exactly is up with the party-balloon type of helium, called helium-4 because it's four times the weight of a hydrogen atom? Part of the problem is people can't make it in a lab. They can't easily store it, either.
Like natural gas, it's trapped in the earth, says Halperin. Once it bubbles up through the surface, it disappears, he says. "Just like the party balloons, if you let it go, it's gone. It's gone forever."
Between World War I and World War II, the United States recognized helium as a lifting gas for balloons (not the party variety) and decided to take the raw helium from the Texas Panhandle and pump it back in the ground in a geological structure called the Bush Dome, says Halperin.
But in 1996, Congress passed an act to get rid of the Bush Dome and its reserves by 2015. "They did a study and thought helium production would continue more or less as it has in the past, and it's a waste of federal money, not recognizing that it's the only way that's known to conserve," says Halperin. The problem: in 2010, half of the world's supply of helium came from reserves in the Bush Dome.
The government needs to store helium again and sustain the supply, says Halperin. And the cost should be allowed to rise for businesses. "If the cost of helium goes up sufficiently, then the companies that are refining natural gas to get helium will continue to do so," he says. Right now the Bureau of Land Management regulates the price and keeps it artificially low for everyone. "They have not yet figured out completely how they can differentiate between hospitals and party balloons," says Halperin.
Unlike glass and plastic, helium is not recyclable. "There's no way you can take the party balloon back to the Bush Dome and pump it back into the ground," says Halperin. Once it comes out of the ground, helium only lasts about two weeks. "If you have it, you might as well use it," says Halperin. "Once you get your hands on it, it's gone.
The presidential candidates have not yet weighed in on helium. But The Onion has chimed in with predictably funny quotes on the shortage. One example: "As a dirigible pilot since 1935, I thank God for an excuse to get out of this [expletive] business."
For more stories about what's in the news this summer, read: