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