The U.S. government may have helped create the current helium shortage, and now people are looking for new sources of the gas.
NOEL KING, HOST: The world is running low on helium, and this is not just about balloons. You need helium to run MRI machines, send astronauts into space and make cell phones among other things. Sarah Gonzalez, with our Planet Money podcast, has the story.
SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Helium is so special and so rare on Earth that the U.S. government once tried to buy up a bunch and hide it, says Sam Burton.
SAM BURTON: And it was actually top-secret work.
GONZALEZ: Sam Burton works at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, overseeing the Federal Helium Program.
BURTON: I’m quite the helium geek (laughter).
GONZALEZ: Burton says helium was first discovered on Earth in 1905 – mixed in with the natural gas in Dexter, Kan. And when scientists learned that helium could lift things, like balloons or blimps, the military thought it would transform warfare in the air. By the 1920s, the military is using helium blimps to spy on enemies. By the 1960s, NASA is using helium to test spacesuits for leaks. Helium is one of the smallest, lightest things in the universe.
BURTON: Helium is an escape artist. If there’s a leak, it’ll get out.
GONZALEZ: Sneaky, little element.
BURTON: It absolutely is (laughter).
GONZALEZ: It was great for detecting leaks, but it also made it hard to store it. The helium kept floating off, so the U.S. government decided to trap helium underground in the rock, secretly, under a field near Amarillo, Texas.
BURTON: It was like Cold War-type stuff to protect the field from prying eyes. First, you just see a big open plain…
GONZALEZ: …Just a regular field. And then, you see this door.
BURTON: Yeah, and then you open that door and – oh, look. There’s a well cellar there.
GONZALEZ: Between 1960 and 1973, the U.S. thought it had injected enough helium in the ground for about 100 years. And the government has been selling off that helium ever since. But for years it was selling it too cheap, and the cheap price discouraged private industry from looking for more helium. Then in 2013, Congress said the government had to get out of the helium business completely by 2021 – sell off the whole operation.
BURTON: Yep, yep. Computers, desks, all that stuff.
GONZALEZ: Are you going to take, like, a little bit of helium with you?
BURTON: No, I probably better not do that.
GONZALEZ: Just a little bit.
BURTON: No, I better not do that.
GONZALEZ: There is a little bit of helium left in the stockpile, but the government is rationing it, so people like Nick Snyder are stepping in. Snyder started a company called North American Helium.
NICK SNYDER: It means we drill holes in the ground looking for new sources of helium in North America.
GONZALEZ: They’re drilling in Saskatchewan, Canada.
Yeah, it’s not an easy trip (laughter).
SNYDER: (Laughter) No, it is not.
GONZALEZ: They give me some coveralls, goggles, tighten up my hardhat, and we head up to a place on the drilling floor called the doghouse.
BRUCE SHIVELBINE: Everybody hangs out in the dog hose.
GONZALEZ: That is Bruce Shivelbine (ph) – the mud man, official title.
SHIVELBINE: My mom told me years ago to stay – quit playing in the mud, and I never listened to her. I’m still doing it.
GONZALEZ: You cannot go looking for helium without a mud man and a drill covered in diamonds for strength. There are these jets on the bottom of the drill that send rock shavings shooting up to the surface. And those rock shavings tell them when they’re close to finding helium.
SNYDER: Very, very old rock.
GONZALEZ: You think there’s like dinosaur fossils mixed into this?
SNYDER: Yes, yes.
SHIVELBINE: Oh, yeah.
GONZALEZ: They have drilled 855 million years past where the dinosaur fossils are. And Nick Snyder says they’ve found new helium. It’s one man with a giant balloon. (Laughter) No, it’s not.
SNYDER: Don’t forget, you need a ride back.
GONZALEZ: They’ll be ready to start selling it in 2021. Sarah Gonzalez, NPR News, New York.