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.