Popular Science magazine has been reporting on the world's helium supply shortage for a couple years. It seems incredible that the element our sun creates at a rate of millions of cubic feet per minute by way of a nucleosynthesis process is actually becoming scarce on Earth. Helium, element #2 in the Periodic Table, was discovered on the sun via spectral analysis before it was found terrestrially. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines are the largest users of helium (22%), followed by welding operations (17%), electronics and cooling cooling applications (14%), pressurization (11%), party balloons (8%), and various other uses. The world could arguably get along without floating party balloons; in fact, using hydrogen (infinitely abundant) in lieu of helium would still produce floatation and could make for real Hindenburg-like excitement when gotten too close to birthday cake candles. ...but I digress.
The coolest part about the short story that appeared in the August 2013 issue is the chart (see thumbnail) which plots the price of helium (adjusted for constant dollars) versus the world's production of helium, created by author Katie Peek. It also has key dates and events highlighted. The line looks a lot like random walking exhibited by Brownian motion, but in fact the behavior has been governed by a mix of technical innovation, geographic exploration, capitalism, and maybe most profoundly by government policies. You can see on the chart how currently the price of helium is skyrocketing, and as with way too many other products, America's share of worldwide production is shrinking rapidly. The path is anything but random. Exploration and mining of all sorts has been impacted significantly in a negative manner by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations. They're serious about enforcement, too, as evidenced by their stocking of ammunition for their agents (similar to the Internal Revenue Service, Department of Energy, Social Security Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other federal agencies).
"We're from the Government, and we're here to help."
Additional helium shortage articles from Popular Science:
- As Shortage Worsens, We Visit the Federal Helium Reserve
- Why Is There a Helium Shortage?
Posted August 8, 2013