As the second-lightest element on the periodic table after hydrogen, helium is known for making things soar: rocket ships, balloons, even the pitch of your voice. And now the element’s price is following suit.
A recent boom in demand and a rapidly dwindling reserve of the stuff have led helium prices to nearly triple in the past five years and has left some scientists wondering just how much of the element there is left to sell.
A byproduct of decaying radioactive elements such as uranium, helium is used in a variety of functions — from lifting up balloons and cooling sensitive medical equipment to assisting with the launch of space shuttles. It’s even used in the manufacture of fiber optics.
And while hospitals and industrial clients generally get the purest helium from the most reliable sources, others who rely on the gas to keep their businesses afloat are left with shakier shipment schedules and higher prices for lower-grade product.
“We’re definitely at the bottom of the food chain,” Bindy Kase, co-owner of the Princeton-based event planning service, Mungo Party, said about her industry in general. “I certainly understand that the hospitals have to have it first, and that we are, you know, recreation, but it’s still scary.”
Kase, who has been creating custom balloons for 18 years, described helium as a “hidden cost” of her business. Her clients, she said, are so focused on the effect of the décor, they rarely stop to think about what’s keeping it in the air.
“They spend a lot of money on these crazy balloons and think that’s the end of it,” Kase said. “They’re not realizing it’s the helium that’s costing so much. So many people take for granted that balloons should be so cheap. Any time a cost like that comes, no one wants to absorb that, but we have to.”
In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which manages the government’s helium stockpile, has increased its open market crude helium price by 50 percent in the last decade.
Kase’s sentiment was echoed by Cathy Bright, co-owner of the Pennsylvania-based business Balloon Boutique by Cathy, who said her helium expenses have tripled in the past five years.
“We just upped our prices a little bit, not too much, but just enough to cover it,” Bright said, while declining to be specific. “We’re actually not charging the customer enough of what it’s costing us — we’re not tripling our prices, we’re taking the heat for it personally.”
While local balloon businesses declined to disclose their price for a tank of helium, the Chicago Tribune last year recorded the rise in prices to customers since 2004, when it cost $38 to rent a tank. In 2009, customers paid $40 to rent a tank, and the price jumped to $58 in 2010.
Currently, Indy Party Rentals’ website lists a price of $89 for a small tank of helium, which fills 215 balloons; $109 for a medium-size tank, which holds enough to fill 426 balloons; and $129 for a large tank, which fills 811 balloons.
Bright said in a typical job, she’ll fill about 200 balloons, while Kase estimated she fills 1,000 balloons monthly.
Such heavy reliance on helium sparked wariness in both women of recent speculation that the helium supply is quickly running out.
“Right now we’re not having trouble finding it as much, it’s just costing more, but I don’t know if that’s the next step — if scarcity is going to be the next issue,” Kase said.
With helium’s recent explosion in popularity outside the United States, many scientists have been wondering the same thing.
Because of its wide scope of uses, helium has become a hot commodity on the world market. Countries are consuming so much that Robert Richardson, a physicist from Cornell University who won the 1996 Nobel Prize for his work with helium, predicted the world’s supply will disappear in just 25 years.
Compounding the problem is the Helium Privatization Act of 1996. With billions of cubic feet of the element stockpiled during the Cold War, the United States was ready to start selling off its reserve by the mid 1990s. The act fixed artificially low prices with the goal of depleting the reserves by 2015. That helped foster the declining supply.
“The law let (the United States) sell off its reserves willy-nilly, and now our reserves are actually dwindling,” said Mike Williams, associate director of engineering and infrastructure at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.
Many of the spacious underground natural reserves where the element is abundant and easily mined have already been tapped by the government, and while the element can also be extracted from the air, the process is long, difficult and extremely expensive, Williams said.
He said current shortage worries — and recently spiked prices — are driven primarily by the delayed reopening of a major helium production plant in Wyoming, but a more realistic fear would be helium running out in the next 100 years.
“But like most things, when the price goes up enough, people will look harder for other reserves and bring more attention to conservation, and therefore it will moderate that effect somewhat,” he said.
One way to delay such a fate is recycling. The technique is used by both Williams’ lab, which uses the liquid form of the element for vacuum pumping, and St. Francis Hospital in Trenton, which needs helium to keep the large magnets found in the Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines cool.
At St. Francis, recycling is especially prudent, as the machine would become de-magnified, and therefore rendered useless, without the cooling agent helium, according to hospital employee, Patrick Dungee.
And while the shortage has been widely talked about lately, not everyone agrees it is imminent.
“The shortage, technically, is over this week,” said Treb Heining, a man who has made a career of planning grandiose balloon drop spectacles, such as the New Year’s celebrations at Times Square and Super Bowl halftime shows and victories.
“It had more to do with a plant that was going under rehab, which is now back up and running,” he said, referencing the Wyoming facility, which is owned by ExxonMobil.
Heining conceded that the recent setback has lopsidedly affected smaller companies, while bigger businesses with bigger contracts have remained relatively unaffected, but he doubts there will be any need to worry for any helium-based industry in the future.
“I don’t think there will ever be a time when we’re out of helium,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to run out, I think it’s debatable.”
President Signs Helium Stewardship Act of 2013; Shutdown of Federal Helium Reserve Is Averted
October 2, 2013
President Obama today signed into law the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013, representing the end of a long series of actions by U.S. Senate and House to reach a solution that avoids a shutdown of the Federal Helium Reserve.
Congress and the President acted in time to avoid a severe jolt in the already sensitive helium market, sidestepping a potential shock to businesses and jobs in the balloon industry and thousands of other businesses in technology, health care and research which rely on helium.
The President's action followed agreement on the bill from both chambers of Congress on September 26, after several votes by the House and Senate that demonstrated strong bipartisan support to avoid disruption of the helium market.
Congress and the President recognized the critical nature of maintaining a stable supply of helium for a wide range of industries across America including manufacturing of semiconductors, MRI machines, research, fiber optic cable, plasma televisions and balloons.