The Magazine

A Different Kind of Gas Shortage

The politics of helium

May 5, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 32 • By KELLY JANE TORRANCE
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At a Harris Teeter in suburban Washington, what used to be Harry’s Balloon Corral is, to young eyes, disappointingly empty. The grocery store has posted a notice explaining why. Children accustomed to alleviating the boredom of the weekly trip to the supermarket with the serious task of keeping a helium-filled balloon from floating out of their reach aren’t likely to understand it, however. “Due to a national helium shortage, we are currently unable to offer Harry the Dragon balloons to our customers in training. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

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Few of their parents will get the sign, either. Helium is one of the most common elements in the universe, second only to hydrogen. How could there possibly be a shortage? It seemed plentiful enough back in high school, when everyone took a turn at the helium tank, inhaling just enough of the gas between giggles to sound like Donald Duck.

The end of free balloons might be the first sign you see of the helium shortage—which is global and not just, as Harris Teeter has it, national. It’s unlikely to be the last. If you’ve read anything about the helium shortage, you might know that the element in its liquid form is crucial for cooling the magnets that power the MRI scanners used to diagnose disease. But, ever since airplanes displaced airships, what else do we need helium for?

“The real answer is everything,” says Richard Shoemaker, a research professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Colorado Boulder, and director of its nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) facility. Scientists engaged in NMR spectroscopy use giant magnets—one in the Colorado facility is 10-feet wide and almost 30-feet tall—to study the properties of matter. “In my lab, I have people from chemistry who are synthesizing molecules that might be used eventually to cure a disease—more than one of our research groups are working on ways of curing cancer. People are doing molecular research on extracting more energy out of solar cells.” NMR, he explains, is used to study the structure of everything from pollutants in air and water to the polymers that could purify them, from our DNA to the liquid crystals that make up the displays in the electronic gadgets that have practically become new appendages.

Few people appreciate, Shoemaker says, how much now depends on helium, a nonrenewable resource that is found in usable amounts only in certain natural gas fields, is expensive to extract and refine, and is one we can’t just make more of (until we master nuclear fusion, anyway). He rattles off a list: “science and technology, aerospace, construction, fabrication, building cars out of lighter alloys for better gas mileage—you can’t weld the frames together without helium.” He speaks without exaggeration when he says that “at the core of everything we hold dear in society, NMR is in the background. NMR makes it possible for you to go to the drugstore to get your Lipitor if you have high blood pressure. Pharmaceutical companies cannot make drugs and sell them if they’re not characterized by NMR because of the FDA’s requirements for proving purity.”

Once you begin to realize how much of modern civilization depends on this noble gas, it’s not surprising that free balloons disappear during a shortage—it’s surprising that helium balloons still spot the skies at all. “Every time I see a party balloon, it makes me mad,” Shoemaker fumes. “Every time I watch the Macy’s parade, I get furious.” The giant floating figures in the annual Thanksgiving procession through Manhattan require about 400,000 cubic feet of helium, which is simply released into the atmosphere to dissipate into space when the day is done.

Macy’s has a big budget. But with hospitals, research laboratories, pharmaceutical companies, industrial plants, and even government agencies competing for part of a scarce supply, shouldn’t the price of the lighter-than-air gas have risen so high that almost no one would pay for a balloon full of the stuff? It hasn’t. And the reason goes a long way toward explaining why there’s a shortage in the first place. The world’s biggest supplier of helium, you see, has been selling it at a cut-rate price that has no connection to its actual value. That might sound like an imprudent business decision that should soon correct itself, but, of course, it wasn’t a business decision at all. The world’s biggest supplier of helium is the United States government.

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