Sadly, affordable helium balloons — festive and amusingly buoyant — may soon become a thing of the past. According to experts, the world could run out of helium, a nonrenewable resource with other (more serious) scientific applications, in 30 years. In light of this threat, Nobel Prize–winning helium expert Robert Richardson has suggested that the free market take over the sale of helium from the U.S. government. Will the cost of party balloons be subject to severe inflation? A quick guide to the helium scare:
Why are we running out of helium?
Because it's "far too cheap and is not treated as a precious resource," Richardson tells New Scientist. In 1925, the U.S. government established the National Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas; however, due to the high cost of maintaining this reserve, Congress passed a law in 1996 requiring that its stockpile — half the Earth's helium — be sold by 2015, at a predetermined price.
Can't we just make more helium?
No. Like other fossil fuels, helium is a nonrenewable resource derived from the Earth's crust. While it is possible — if prohibitively expensive — to collect helium from the air, most of the world's helium reserves have been extracted from natural gas.
What is helium used for, besides balloons?
Many things. Because of its ultra-low boiling point, helium is often used in its liquid form as a coolant in nuclear reactors and other high-temperature processes. It also plays a role in cryogenics, rocket science (literally), and the production of fiber optics and liquid crystal displays.
Can we stop its depletion?
Not entirely. But we can slow it down. The U.S. government must "get out" of the helium business "and let the free market prevail," says Richardson. "The consequence will be a rise in prices." But "we will have to live with those prices eventually anyway."