Should You Be Hoarding Helium?

Helium is becoming scarce and it means more than the end of silly voices.

Multi-bits via Getty Images

Helium isn’t just for balloons and high-pitched voices (though it is definitely good for both of those things). The light gas is actually irreplaceable, both literally and figuratively. Despite its gaseous fame, helium is actually most commonly used in its liquid form because of its extremely low boiling point (-452.07 degrees Fahrenheit). It can never exceed the considerably subzero temperature, so it is used to clean rocket fuel tanks and keep MRI machines running.

Unfortunately, helium is on its way toward extinction. The element is a non-renewable resource, and those who use it the most make little effort to recycle. The lack of conservation had never been an issue for the United States, which is likely to be hit hard by future shortages. In 1925, Congress initiated the United States National Helium Reserve because the gas was necessary for blimps, then a military vessel; previously, hydrogen was used, but was quite dangerous do to its combustibility. As blimps became less vital, so did the Helium Reserve, which saw the beginning of its end in 1996 with the passage of the Helium Privatization Act. According to Priceonomics, the United States is about to run through the remainder of its reserves and join the rest of the world in extracting fresh helium.

The shortage may seem like something in the distant future — the Reserve will continue operation until 2021 — but the effects will be real soon enough. Something as procedural as an MRI examination will likely become more expensive when upkeep of the machine becomes more difficult with less hydrogen available. Cherish your balloons while you have them because the opportunity to get another may be what’s really floating away.