There are a lot of science-y things to worry about: climate change, weapons of mass destruction, cyberterrorism, what Bill Nye is up to these days. But there’re some things you just never worry about until it’s too late. You take them for granted, and then suddenly your whole world is turned upside-down.
That’s right, I’m talking about helium. I used to go to bed each night comforted by the fact that helium was an abundant resource, a cheap element in this age of petroleum and gold and platinum. Scientists assured me that I would forever be able to blow up party balloons and make my voice squeaky for a neat trick.
I was lied to.
“We’re Running Out of Helium” a headline at Newswer ominously screams. We’re running out of helium? Holy crap!
I quickly racked my poor English-major mind, reaching back to my rusting high school chemistry knowledge. Helium, atomic number 2, the lowest noble gas and the second-lowest element, second only to hydrogen. It’s lighter than air, which is why balloons and cows and stuff float when filled with it. And, more importantly, I remembered it is one of the most abundant elements in the universe. In fact, helium is second only to hydrogen in abundance — and it makes up almost a quarter of the universe’s mass! How can we be running out of helium?
A report in the U.K.’s The Independent details the upcoming shortage, only 25 or 30 years away. They blame it on a 1996 U.S. law, the Helium Privatization Act, which ordered the Department of the Interior’s U.S. National Helium Reserve (yes, you read that right) to be sold off by 2015, at pretty much all costs. Congress was attempting to get back some of the $1.4 billion it had lost running the helium industry.
A National Research Council report concluded, among other things, that no new sources of helium will ever be discovered on Earth. Awesome.
The scientist behind this story is no nutjob — meet Robert Richardson, a professor of physics at Cornell University and a Nobel winner.
The problem, Richardson says, is that the law required the reserves to be sold without concern for global demand, wildly driving down prices on a surprisingly precious resource. “As a result of that Act, helium is far too cheap and is not treated as a precious resource,” he said. “It’s being squandered… Once helium is released into the atmosphere in the form of party balloons or boiling helium it is lost to the Earth forever, lost to the Earth forever.”
Richardson and other NRC researchers concluded that the government should raise the price of helium drastically, possibly to 50 times its current price, to discourage waste and encourage recycling. What does that mean for the average consumer?
Professor Richardson also believes that party balloons filled with helium are too cheap, and they should really cost about $100 (£75) to reflect the precious nature of the gas they contain.
My whole world — okay, a small part of my world — has been turned upside down. I’m not sure I’ll be able to sleep tonight.