Peak Helium – Is the Party Over for this Resource?

helium balloon

Silver, gold, oil, stocks, bonds, real estate!  I won’t pretend to know more than the investment experts, but many people lost a lot of money following their advice.  Why have these experts overlooked a resource that is guaranteed to rise– even if only within the confines of a lost balloon?  Yes I’m talking about helium!  Helium (He) is the second lightest element with an atomic number 2.  Unlike hydrogen, which destroyed the Hindenburg, helium adds non-flammable fun to birthday parties.  It also cools superconducting magnets in MRI medical scanners, helps with the manufacture of microchips and makes everyone sound just like Donald Duck.

Yes, we all know that helium is lighter than air, but what would cause the price of the universe’s second most abundant element to rise?  Just as China manipulated the price of rare earth metals, and OPEC manipulates the price of oil, the US managed to build up a huge helium reserve and then dumped it onto the market.  When this short-term supply dump ended, prices began to rise.

Nobel laureate Robert Richardson, professor of physics at New York’s Cornell University believes that if helium was allowed to seek its true price, a helium party balloon would cost about $100.  That hasn’t happened yet but florists and party supply companies are already feeling the pinch.

One of the problems with helium is that when it leaks out of a party balloon or an airship, it eventually rises to the top of our atmosphere where the solar wind blows it away into outer space.

Nuclear reactions within the earth’s crust will eventually produce more but this can take millions of years.  The rise in the price of helium is actually good news for parts of the Mideast.  Most of the helium in the US reserve came from fractional distillation of natural gas from wells in Texas but natural gas reserves in the Mideast also contain helium.  A helium refinery is already planned for Qatar.

When complete it will be the world’s largest helium refinery with an estimated capacity of 38 million cubic meters of helium per year.  That’s enough to fill 2 billion party balloons every year.  At that rate it will take more than 150 years to fill enough balloons to lift the great pyramid at Giza.  So it really does pay to conserve your helium!

Helium balloon photo via Shutterstock

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