Thanks to a mandate passed by Congress in 1996, the US government is about to get out of the business of producing helium. The resulting shortage could affect a range of sectors across the industrialized world.
A 1996 mandate designed to get the US government out of the business of producing helium may result in the industrialized world falling off a “helium cliff” later this year unless Congress takes measures to continue sales of the gas. The mandate allowed the Bureau of Land Management, which supervises the Federal Helium Reserve, to sell helium to companies only until it recovered the production costs…a milestone it’s expected to hit this October. However, the bureau “sells off helium at below-market rates, encouraging waste and discouraging the development of new sources.” Consequently, there aren’t enough alternatives that can make up for the removal of government helium from the market.
What’s the Big Idea?
Despite the fact that it’s the most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium is difficult to find and store. Three-quarters of the world’s supply is produced by the US, with half of that coming from the Federal Helium Reserve. The amount of gas used by the party-balloon industry is tiny compared to that used in other sectors, including medicine — where MRI machines rely on liquid helium for regulating magnets, just to name one example — and computer manufacturing. Some efforts are being made to address the shortage, including increasing production overseas and building a new plant in Wyoming.