A Helium Shortage! What If We Ran Out of Helium?

By: Chris Opfer & Sascha Bos  | 
Five colorful balloons in a row against blue sky at the beach
If we ran out of helium, it wouldn't exactly be a day at the beach the_burtons / Getty Images

Helium isn't just the stuff they put in balloons that makes your voice sound funny when you inhale it. This gas is also used in a wide variety of settings, from medical research technology and nuclear reactors to the blimps that fly over football stadiums on Sunday afternoons in the fall.

Although it's one of the most common elements in the universe, helium is relatively scarce here on planet Earth, and there aren't many places where helium production is a viable option. That's created fears about what will happen if we run out. Learn more about the ongoing helium shortage.


Helium Origins

Helium is so rare on Earth that a French researcher first discovered its existence by studying the sun. The naturally occurring gas makes up only about 0.0005 percent of our planet's atmosphere.

It's found largely in natural gas deposits, including those in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, as well as in Russia and India. U.S. deposits account for more than 80 percent of the world's helium supply [sources: Jefferson Lab, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Boyle].


Helium's Unique Properties

What makes the stuff so special? For one thing, it stays cold. Helium has the lowest boiling point of any element and is the only one that can't be solidified by lowering the temperature. This makes it a great cooling source, one that's often used in cryogenic research.

Liquid helium comes in handy in reducing temperatures for superconducting magnets like those used in MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines. Helium demand also applies to other technologies, such as LCD screens and other fiber optics, quantum computers and rocket fuel tanks [sources: Los Alamos National Laboratory, Boyle, Strusiewicz].


Helium Reserve

The trouble is that helium is a finite element. The world only has so much of the gas, and our planet's supply appears to be running low.

In 1925, the feds established a national helium reserve in Amarillo, Texas. The idea was to stockpile helium for use in blimps as part of the war effort. Seven decades later, the government decided to get out of the helium business. Then-President Bill Clinton signed a law requiring the government to sell off its helium supply by 2015 [sources: Boyle, Feinberg].


The move was intended to allow the private helium market to sort out the element's value as well as when and where it should be used.

Instead, it led to a fire sale of sorts in which the gas remained incredibly cheap, given how rare it is. A new law granting more time to get rid of the stuff was passed shortly before the deadline, and the U.S. General Services Administration is set to auction off 1 billion cubic feet of crude helium on November 2023 [source: GSA].


A Global Helium Shortage?

In the meantime, it's believed that the planet's total helium supply is running dry. If our supply ran out, it could spell the end of MRI testing, LCD screens and birthday party balloons. Or it could make all of those things much more expensive.

Although argon — another inert gas — can be substituted for helium for welding purposes, no other element can do what helium can do in super cold applications. That means we'd probably have to go looking for helium in the atmosphere. Experts say that would raise the price of helium by about 10,000 times [sources: Minerals Education Coalition, Boyle, Strusiewicz].


Russia is one of the world's largest helium suppliers. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, halting trade, the helium industry began rationing the nonrenewable element. In response, some scientists have halted experiments involving liquid helium in order to save helium for MRI machines in hospitals [source: Hopkins].


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