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The NY Times on the Impending Helium Shortage

December 20, 2012 at 3:26 pm

Nearly a couple of years ago now, I wrote several blog posts about the current state of the world's helium supply and the relatively recent but dangerous instability in the global helium market.  Ever since then, I've been interested to see if coverage of the issue would become more widespread as the problem worsens.  It is, though slowly.

This piece in yesterday's New York Times is interesting.  I hadn't given much thought to supply chain issues, which get some discussion there.  But I think it overemphasizes party balloons and parade floats to the extent of trivializing the genuinely dangerous implications of an extended, or permanent*, helium shortage.  The article does mention the use of helium as a coolant for superconducting magnets in medical imaging applications, but that's just one place where severe instability of the helium market is already having unsettling repercussions.

I'm also a little disappointed that it doesn't delve more deeply into the underlying reasons for the market instability.  The NY Times piece mentions the 1996 Helium Privatization Act only in passing, and only at the end.  That's unfortunate, because it's that single piece of legislation that has upset the apple cart in a very foolish and shortsighted way.  And which, if left uncorrected, could have truly catastrophic consequences in the future.

The University of Nebraska should consider itself lucky.  If the market price of helium was set according to its actual scarcity and nonrenewability, rather than some idiotic scientifically illiterate decision by the US Congress, each of those red balloons might cost close to a thousand dollars.

*And, long-term, the shortage will be permanent, because helium is nonrenewable.  As I explained in this post, all the helium we're squandering away in a couple of decades was slowly built up in the Earth's crust over billions of years of geological time.  People who claim the helium shortage is either a non-issue or a manufactured crisis are, not to put too fine a point on it, blatherating idiots who can't be bothered to educate themselves.


Tim Keating December 20, 2012 at 4:38 pm
Nonrenewable? Nonsense. The sun is FULL of helium.
Steve Halter December 20, 2012 at 9:08 pm
Another great post on the subject Ian. It is quite irritating that people don't listen to science. Helium, climate change, mass extinctions. But, then Congress doesn't even grasp economics, let alone physics--not sure of how to correct that.
Ian December 21, 2012 at 11:56 am
Nonrenewable? Nonsense. The sun is FULL of helium. You know, I can't argue with that. I really can't. There is a vast amount of helium in the local neighborhood! The thing that genuinely blows my mind about the legislative decision to sell off all the helium in the National Helium Reserve is that apparently nobody, not a single congressional staffer, actually looked into the matter for the, oh, thirty minutes it would have taken to figure out that this was a really bad idea. There was that National Academy of Science study, but it was hugely flawed.
Steve Halter December 21, 2012 at 3:43 pm
I am guessing that the defunding of the Office of Technology Assessment in 1996 may have had something to do with no one looking at the implications of the 1996 Helium Privatization Act. Getting rid of your science advisors is not the best idea ever.
Ian December 21, 2012 at 9:28 pm
I'm pretty sure I didn't know about the Office of Technology Assessment! It does sound like an entity that might have had something to say about the utility of helium... Very interesting! I wonder how that came about?
Steve Halter December 21, 2012 at 10:11 pm
The OTA was essentially the science advisory department to Congress. When the Republicans came to power in 1994, they deemed it an unnecessary agency and it was defunded. I had never put the two things together until your post today, but the timing is interesting ...
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