Helium: Is it Really Running Out?
Written by PengCheng Zhu '26
Edited by Jasmine Shum '24
The Crude Helium Enrichment Unit in the Cliffside Gas Field, Federal Helium Program, outside Amarillo, Texas.
Helium balloons are a delight in many children’s birthday parties. The balloons try to float towards the ceiling while the children have fun pulling, kicking, and hugging them. But for one reason or another, the helium balloons often escape the clutches of children’s hands, out of the confines of a building’s ceiling, and float ever upwards into the sky. Pop. Pop. Pop. The balloons are gone and the helium is scattered in the vast atmosphere, unlikely to ever be recovered.
The atmosphere is not just the final destination for the helium enclosed in balloons, but also for the helium involved in a variety of processes such as MRI machines, cryogenic cooling, leak detection, chromatography, electronics manufacturing, welding……and the list goes on. Many of these processes are extremely helium-dependent since there are no practical substitutes that match helium’s many useful properties—never freezes under standard pressure, light-weight, and inert. It is no wonder then that a price spike in 2013 would prompt helium-dependent researchers to publicly call for the world to “stop squandering helium.” 
Why would helium prices spike? One must understand how humans extract helium to answer that question. While helium is a colorless gas, it is so inert and rare in the atmosphere (~5.3 ppm) that extracting helium from air is virtually a non-starter from an economic perspective. Instead, most helium supplies are extracted from the earth alongside natural gas. How can helium form underground? The radioactive decay of uranium and thorium in the earth emits alpha particles—a bundle of two neutrons and two protons—which, when combined with two electrons from surrounding matter, creates helium. Since it is the second smallest element in the periodic table, helium can escape through many rock formations; however, underground systems that can entrap methane (the principle molecule in natural gas) can also retain some helium as well. Therefore, oil companies looking to extract natural gas often extract helium as a byproduct. In some cases, the helium is vented as waste, but with the rise of helium prices, the practice of allowing helium to escape is on the decline, and even some dedicated helium wells have been established. Depending on the concentration of helium in a particular mining site, the mixture extracted may be designated as raw helium (40-55% He), or crude helium (~70% He). These mixtures are then refined into commercial grade-A helium (99.995% He) at dedicated helium refineries . Therefore, helium mining is an extremely capital-intensive process that responds slowly to changes in market demands. When helium demand in a year unexpectedly rises above the projections of producers, the price of helium consequently spikes.
For much of the 20th century, the United States has dominated in helium production. However, a variety of factors, such as errors in establishing and managing the Strategic Helium Reserve in the 1960s, has led US helium production to steadily decline . Despite this, the US is still the world’s greatest helium producer (66% of global share in 2013), with Algeria (and Qatar (15.5%) trailing behind. Given the sales data, economists have constructed predictive models regarding the future supply of helium. Some models suggest that helium supplies would run out by 2060 , while other models suggest that helium supplies can last up to 2090. Even though helium is technically still being generated every second from the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium, this process cannot keep up with human demand.
However, several factors add uncertainty to economists’ predictions: new reserves of helium may be discovered in the future, such as the recently discovered reserves in Siberia  and Tanzania. Helium usage for industrial processes may become more efficient than expected, especially under the market pressure of higher helium prices. However, these supply projections do cast a looming shadow over many disparate industries. Alternatives to helium for cryogenic cooling have been explored, with one study suggesting that hydrogen may be a promising candidate—but the reactivity of hydrogen compared to the inertness of helium still presents a major challenge . In other industries, such as MRI machine operations, designers are creating MRI machines that use helium more efficiently as well as mechanisms for recycling helium. However, helium recycling efforts are facing major logistical hurdles, especially with MRI machines that are not in centralized areas. Therefore, it is imperative that more research is dedicated towards minimizing helium usage and maximizing helium retention. The researchers calling for the world to stop squandering helium have even suggested creating an international body to coordinate the production and allocation of helium. In that case, those delightful helium balloons may be an unfortunate—but worthy—sacrifice.
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[Image] US Bureau of Land Management. https://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/info/history/sidebars/energy/managing_the_blm_s.html