Helium: A Noble, Rare, and Versatile Gas

It’s graduation season: Seal some money in an envelope, drag a lawn chair over to the driveway, and dodge that cluster of helium balloons while you snag yourself a slice of cake.
While you’re shoving that cake in your piehole, contemplate that cluster of helium balloons and think about this: The Federal Helium Reserve, which holds 10 billion cubic feet of helium—much of the world’s usable supply—was scheduled to shut its doors in 2013. Congress passed the Helium Stewardship Act to keep it open, thereby averting a global crisis. Now put your down your fork and think about that. Yes: The United States has a Federal Helium Reserve. It’s an underground wonderland that stretches from Kansas to Texas, with its main storage facility in a cave just outside Amarillo. The government established it back when air travel by dirigible was the height of fashion. The Texas facility is the world’s largest repository of helium. The reason why it was scheduled to close in 2013 is because the government was in the process of deaccessioning it via the Helium Privatization Act of 1996. This dandy piece of legislation exemplifies the heady days of the Clinton administration, when Newt Gingrich was determined to shut down the government. No government was good government. Being of sound mind and body, you ask: Why in the world does the federal government control the world supply of a gas that is used as a party favor? Because balloons are just one of helium’s many uses. Helium is not only a noble gas; it is also a versatile gas. It is used in MRI scanners, fiber optic manufacturing, arc welding, and in LCD screens. Its top use is in cryogenics. It also cools superconducting magnets and is used to grow crystals for silicon wafers. Much of the helium used for these applications is supercooled liquid helium—the coldest substance on Earth. In fact, some scientists get mad when helium is wasted on balloons. Each Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon of Snoopy or SpongeBob uses up to 400,000 cubic feet of helium, which is simply released into the air when the parade is over. Meanwhile, researcher Richard Shoemaker “will sometimes see two- and three-week delays in delivery of the liquid helium used to cool his University of Colorado facility’s giant magnets. His worry isn’t that his research will have to wait—it is that the millions of dollars of equipment it requires will be knocked out,” writes Kelly Jane Torrance in the Weekly Standard. Paradoxically, helium is the second most abundant element in the universe but rare in Earth’s atmosphere. We can’t make more of it, meaning it’s nonrenewable. On Earth, it’s produced by slow radioactive decay deep underground. The Federal Helium Reserve collects helium that is recovered in the natural gas of Texas and Oklahoma, which is naturally high in helium. The helium is separated from the natural gas and transported by pipeline to the facility. The Helium Privatization Act ordered the U.S. Department of the Interior to sell off the reserve by 2005. But you know how the federal government works. It was 2007 before they started getting around to it, at which time they began drawing down the amount of helium held in the facility. By 2011 they still weren’t done, but helium supplies were running low. By 2013, with helium production seriously in danger, Congress had a change of heart and decided to retain control of the reserve, basically because no private buyer stepped forward to take over the duties from the Feds. When Congress reversed itself with the Helium Stewardship Act, their actions were swiftly applauded in the media, not the least by Gail Collins in the New York Times, whose op-ed piece, “An Ode to Helium,” noted that the resounding bipartisan support led to a final Congressional vote of 394 to 1. “The lone ‘nay’ came from Representative Linda Sanchez of California, who accidentally pressed the wrong button,” she wrote. Collins further noted that “The helium program is great; it provided the country with a crucial product that business wasn’t prepared to produce. It spurred economic growth and scientific research and made enough profit to pay the taxpayers back.” The Helium Stewardship Act did preserve the U.S. supply, but a remaining problem is the fact that the government sells helium below market prices. Instead of dealing with this valuable gas as a commodity, like natural gas, for instance, it sold it only with an eye toward recouping the costs incurred in running the reserve. The upshot is the price of helium on the market is out of whack, basically much lower than if the law of supply and demand were in effect. Yet, by 2014 worldwide helium production was up, thanks to Qatar. The tiny Arab state is now the world’s second largest helium producer after adding a new production capacity at their existing facility. They now produce 75.4 million liters of the gas, about 14 percent of the world’s supply as opposed to the U.S.’s 33 percent. The Qatar operation is the world’s largest helium production plant. But the demand for helium continues to outstrip supply, especially during peak times of the year. This has led to rising prices. And to add to the severity of the situation: Congress only funded the Federal Helium Reserve through 2021, after which it once again faces privatization or shuttering. Enter the Liquid Helium Purchase Program: The American Physical Society, Defense Logistics Agency, and American Chemical Society have teamed up to make sure that all universities and research facilities have access to the helium they need. These three entities can negotiate better prices on liquid helium on behalf of these institutions, which frequently need only small amounts. This will help avoid the wild price fluctuations that these institutions often experience—anything from $8 per liter to $25 per liter. The moral of the story is that all our natural resources need to be carefully managed and considered if we are to achieve true sustainability. Fossil fuels get the brunt of the natural resource attention, but the unsung heroes of the periodic chart deserve some love too. Our high-tech world requires that our political leaders engage in critical thinking and foresight to properly manage our natural capital. As Shoemaker told Torrance, “The United States needs to look at helium as a strategic resource and manage it as they do any other their other strategic resources for defense and technology purposes. They need to understand there’s a need for it in the foreseeable future. Do we depend on Qatar, and Algeria, and Russia to provide us that?” *You know the Hindenburg exploded upon landing in New Jersey in 1937, killing 36 people as the hydrogen went up in flames. But did you know this was the sixth major airship disaster in just sixteen years? All told, 287 people died in these infernos; 77 people died when the USS Akron, which was the largest helium-filled airship ever constructed and which served as a flying aircraft carrier for the U.S. Navy, was destroyed in a storm off the coast of New Jersey in April 1933. It was the deadliest airship disaster in history. No wonder these behemoths are no longer soaring through our skies.


The Crude Helium Enrichment Unit outside Amarillo, TX. Source: U.S. Bureau of Land Management.


Source: USGS Mineral Study 2013.

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