Balloons are one of the most popular uses for helium.
If you walk into Vons right now, head towards the florist’s station, and ask for a balloon you would be sincerely turned down. It’s a sad time when you are unable to buy a “Get Well Soon” balloon for your friend in the hospital and have to resort to a teddy bear or a mundane card. Even though helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, it is slowly floating away with all of those balloons we like to buy. 

Helium gas is concentrated underground in places with large amounts of uranium ore. The uranium slowly emits alpha particles, which can capture electrons and become helium gas. Underground air can contain concentrations of helium that make up approximately 7% of its composition. The Helium is removed from the natural gasses by the process of cryogenic distillation and then sent away for distribution by the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve. The majority of these "helium fields" used to supply the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve are located in the Texan Panhandle. 

While all this may seem “fine and dandy”, we are finding ourselves in a bit of a shortage of this element we know to shrink our voice boxes and be the culprit behind our balloons flying away. 

In 1996, congress passed a mandate to privatize the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve program in hopes to move the United States out of the helium business by 2015. Basically, the government wanted the reserves to be empty in 2015. It was thought that alternate sources and productions of the element would have been found by that time, but it looks to be a little less possible now than it was projected to be sixteen years ago. 

With these reserves becoming less and less full, we are finding several areas that might begin to suffer with this oncoming depletion of helium. Health care, small-scale research projects, party balloon sales will soon feel the wrath of this shortage, if they haven’t already. 

MRI machine
"Helium is absolutely essential to MRI production," says Tom Rauch, global sourcing manager for GE Healthcare, one of the largest manufacturers of MRI systems.. Liquid Helium is used to cool MRI magnets because of the low boiling points (approximately -452 degrees F or -296 degrees C). "Helium is currently the only element on Earth that can effectively keep the magnet this cold and consequently allow for the high field strength, stable and uniform magnetic fields that make modern MRI systems possible," he says. 

Even in Ontario, Canada, researchers are facing obstacles related to this shortage. Rising prices give smaller research facilities a more difficult time purchasing Helium with the prices rising at the rate they are. “It’s made it difficult to do the research because it’s extremely expensive,” said Grace Parraga, a professor and researcher at the Robarts Research Institute at the University of Western Ontario. Even at a discounted price for scientific research, she said her laboratory pays $795 per liter. That’s up from $300 not so long ago. Prof. Parraga said they’ve been unable to perform a clinical trial because of the high costs. 

But there is a silver lining in all of this chaos! In response to the troubling shortages of Helium, a bipartisan senate bill has been introduced called Senate Bill 2374 The Helium Stewardship Act to reauthorize the Federal Helium Reserve in Texas to continue selling helium beyond 2015. The purpose of this bill is to continue the sale of Helium past the previous cut off date set by the 1996 mandate. Hopefully, these sales will repay the treasury back for the costs to set up the reserve in the first place as well as assist with the national debt. Although these sales will not help with the eventual depletion of Helium on Earth, they will cushion the blow to the places where this viable resource is needed in our everyday lives. 

Yet hope still exists in three new Helium sites opening up in the next twelve months. Wyoming, Algeria, and Qatar will be housing these sites, adding around a 25% increase to the world supply, and contributing to the elimination of the current shortage. 

So, the next time you want to bring a balloon somewhere in order to brighten someone’s day or make a friend feel better, just choose the teddy bear or the card for the sake of MRI’s everywhere.