On Sunday I attended a birthday party for a toddler. Don't panic; I was invited.
There are not many things a two-year old loves more than balloons, and the adults responsible for this event went hard in the balloon department. The child was thrilled, confronted with a veritable embarrassment of balloon options.
Some of the adults noticed, however, a trend that has been ramping up for a couple years – that helium balloons, once barely able to be restrained from breaking the surly bonds of gravity and rocketing skyward, are curiously lethargic these days. It's not just your memory making things from childhood more exciting. Buy a balloon in 2019 and there's an outstanding chance it has a watered-down mixture of helium with other non-buoyant gases because, as I quickly found myself addressing all of the adults who looked bored and alarmed at the childless man in their presence, the planet is running out of helium.
The global supply of helium is tight. All of the helium available in commercial quantities comes from one of three places – West Texas, one gas field in Qatar, and some reserves in Wyoming. For years the Texas supply was satisfying most of global demand. It is almost empty, though, and Qatar has been hit by some economic and political sanctions that have made its supply hard to get on the market as well. The result is that in the past two years the price of helium has gone – wait for it – sky high.
Helium can be manufactured, but it's expensive to do so. It can be extracted from natural gas, and Russia (which has natural gas aplenty, like the US) is proposing to start up production soon. All of this raises the interesting and not-obvious question of why anyone cares about helium.
True, much of it goes into balloons and is inhaled at parties for comedic effect. Those sort of novelty uses may disappear, though, because helium is also crucial to a lot of high-tech manufacturing. MRI machines are full of it and helium-filled assembly spaces are also crucial in the manufacture of semiconductors and other micro-electronics. It's certainly not the sexiest natural resource – and again, the fact that it can be manufactured probably eases some of the alarm – but it's one of many off-the-radar resources that are being strained these days.
It turns out that most of the cobalt on Earth is in the DR Congo, a politically unstable, corrupt, and poverty-stricken country. Smartphones require ready supplies of metals you haven't thought about since you learned the periodic table like tantalum (Rwanda, DRC) and praseodymium. China, Brazil, and Russia have 90% of global reserves of Rare Earth Metals, most of which are very difficult to mine and process without creating a lot of toxic byproducts. China is currently shitting up Inner Mongolia in its quest to mine and refine as many of these rare metals as possible.
We've become sort of numb to hearing alarming things about the planet and our natural resources. God knows there are enough really alarming things to worry about like running out of oil, potable water, and phosphorus (an essential agricultural additive we're on pace to exhaust by about 2070). There are 7 billion of us and counting, and in the distant future the story of the 21st Century is likely to be one of conflict stemming from increased competition for scarce resources.