The second most abundant element in the universe, helium was discovered on the sun before it was found on earth. So is there an abundance or shortage?
Historically, helium has been mined as a by-product of natural gas. Like any natural resource, it’s subject to supply and demand. Despite reserves being available, helium can experience disruptions to market for many reasons including maintenance shutdowns, trade and diplomatic disputes. Like all commodity shortages, they eventually subside when new supply enters the market and/or demand is reduced in concert with changes in price.
Helium is more complex than most people realize – and it’s not just for party balloons. Helium has many different uses, from:
• Cooling MRI machines
• Manufacturing semiconductor chips
• Finding leaks in ships
• In breathing mixtures for divers
Most global helium use, over 85%, is for things other than balloon inflation. (An 18” balloon needs only 0.1 ounce of gas.) Different purity grades of helium are required for many of these different applications. Designated in the “lifting” category of helium use, balloons do not need the more expensive, higher grade helium purity that medical, scientific or technology applications require. Therefore, helium qualified for medical need is likely never used in balloons.
Learn more about different grades of helium and for what they are used.
As with all resources, helium should be used responsibly. Every day reserve exploration is underway as well as the development of alternative gases to use in place of helium, like balloon gas. Recently new technology has made it more economical to extract a lower grade helium from non-natural gas fields. It’s estimated that this could supply up to two-thirds of the helium required for balloons in the near future.
But the best kept secret to conserve helium for balloon inflation? Use AIR!
Did You Know?
ANY balloon can be filled with air.
• Saving the expense of helium.
• Enabling more manageable transport and making it easy to create the perfect Instagram party picture!
The good news? The world is not running out of helium. There is currently over 200 years helium supply at current demand rates.
New major helium plants in Russia and Qatar are coming online in the next couple years along with a number of smaller plants based in the US, Canada, Australia and South Africa. It’s expected that with this new supply, the market might move to a surplus that will put pressure on lowering the price. Additionally, the US government is looking at options for sustainable helium starting with a small-scale program run by the National Science Foundation to outfit labs with systems that recycle and re-liquify helium.
With efficient use, advancing technology and the development of alternatives, we can continue to responsibly enjoy the many benefits of helium – and balloons can continue to rise for the occasion!