LE SOLEIL (Canada), POPULAR MECHANICS, SMITHSONIAN (USA), GUARDIAN (UK)
Sure, fewer party balloons and squeaky-voice clown pranks would be a shame. But recent reports of a worldwide shortage of helium could also create supply problems in the production of some of the most advanced technologies, reports Quebec news site Le Soleil.
Reserves of helium, a non-renewable resource that is abundant in nature but hard to capture, is found mainly in the US, especially in Texas, where it is stored as a byproduct of natural gas production.
In the early 20th century, as helium was considered critical to American defense, the US government created a national helium reserve, and the US still has one-third of the world's entire stock, notes Smithsonian Magazine.
But in 1996, Congress mandated that the reserve be sold down and private companies haven't taken up the slack, and “consumers are left with spiking prices and tightening supplies,” reports Popular Mechanics.
Helium is necessary not only for its well-known properties of keeping party balloons afloat and causing funny voices. It is critical to the functioning of superconductors, particle accelerators, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), welding, weather balloons and fiber optics, among many other scientific and health uses.
According to the Guardian, a single helium party balloon should cost 75 pounds ($US122) if it were priced to reflect the scarcity of helium. Some scientists have called for a reduction or ban in the use of helium balloons. Cornell University professor Robert Richardson, who won a Nobel prize studying helium, is leading the efforts. “We are squandering an irreplaceable resource,” Richardson says.