IN THE AIR TONIGHT

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.

30 thoughts on “IN THE AIR TONIGHT”

  • True fact: my dad is a retired scientist, and for family birthdays he had access to pretty much All The Chemicals at his lab. So a perk for me and my sister were birthdays involving a literal car-full of 100% helium filled balloons.

    Good times.

    Anyhow, I hear leather jackets and rusty football helmets are slimming so you should really stop being such a worry-wart Ed.

  • I've been aware of this for about 20-25 years, IIRC. That it's only now impinging on a lot of peoples' conciousness is somewhat troubling.

    OTOH, birthday parties without helium balloons, clear air and water and tolerable daytime temperatures….

  • I'm not sure helium can be manufactured. It's produced some radioactive decay but I can't imagine that's cost-effective for industrial quantities. It mostly gets purified from natural gas deposits that trapped the decay produced helium over millions of years. There is a tiny bit in the atmosphere but like a .0005% so I don't see how it can be commercially extracted. I think harvesting natural gas fields with lower yields would be the most likely path?

  • I can see the firm of Rip, Pulverize and Douchebag (consulatants to Big Nergy) starting a campaign:

    "Fracking for Helium–Won't someone think of the childrens' balloons!?

  • This type of truly informative post is the only reason I still come to this site. Granted they are becoming increasingly rare, like Helium as it turns out, but the once or twice per quarter they appear makes it worth it.

    The stuff about sending everyone that makes more money than Ed to the guillotine or only fools floss…I can do without.

  • Go look up "National Helium Reserve" on wikipedia.

    "By 1995, a billion cubic metres of the gas had been collected, and the reserve was US$1.4 billion in debt, prompting Congress to begin phasing out the reserve in 1996.[4][5] The resulting "Helium Privatization Act of 1996" (Public Law 104–273) directed the Department of the Interior to start selling off the reserve by 2005.[6]"

    It doesn't make sense to want to sell off an element that is so hard and expensive to capture. Especially to use in kid's balloons.

    Seems shortsighted.

  • Hydrogen is more affordable, even lighter and it's flammability might discourage "Balloon voice" shenanigans… emphatically.

  • Helium is an element, so it is not manufactured. It is purified in factories. :) It can be purified from sources with a low concentration but at a very cost. The current natural gas sources have helium at 0.2% – 1%, while the concentration in the air is 0.0005% (5 parts per million). There are a lot of helium that can be produced at a cost several times higher than the current price, so this is a resource that won't run out, we'll just run out of the cheap supply. Helium balloons are a minor use of helium, so skipping party balloons isn't a way to tackle this issue.

  • It's pretty amazing how many elements we use nowadays. It isn't just the iron age anymore. An iPhone, for example, uses 75 of the 92 natural ones. This means that our supply chains are increasingly international. Of course, supply chains have always been international. The Bronze Age in the Medeterranian relied on tin from Cornwall, and there are still Phoenician place names in the area.

    Helium, particularly liquid helium, is in demand for anything with a superconducting magnet in it. West Texas with its natural gas reserves full of helium was home to Stanley Marsh 3, the helium magnate, who is famous for funding Cadillac Ranch. If you've ever seen a picture of a bunch of vintage Cadillacs sticking out of the ground, you can thank helium.

    With fracking, we are having a natural gas boom, but no one is bothering with collecting the helium. It's ironic. In the old days, no one bothered collecting the natural gas. They just flared it. If the price of helium goes up enough, I'm guessing they'll start extracting it from frakked natural gas. Now that the US is exporting it, this could be done at a liquification plant.

  • ". . .in the distant future the story of the 21st Century is likely to be one of conflict stemming from increased competition for scarce resources."

    Nothing distant about that future, amigo. It's already here.

  • @ mm:

    "Seems shortsighted."

    IOW, as MurKKKan as Welfare Moms, Mickey D's Apple Pies and Chevrolet*."

    We always seem to care about shit after it's too late to do much about it.

    @ Dookie:

    ONLY people that make more than Ed? Well, shit, I'm safe, that's for sure! OTOH, a lot of our valued commenters will be whisked away (can that even be possible on a two wheel tippy cart?) on the tumbrels. As with many things that seem very terrible, always–the re-emergence of the guillotine as an instrument of state sanction will happen at the same moment in time when we get SERIOUS about trying to STOP global warming–battery powered tumbrels and solar powered guillotines!

    Except for that fucking wimpass Volt!

  • Please don't buy helium-filled balloons. Definitely don't release them outside! They can land in rural areas where birds and other animals eat the balloons and die.

  • David White says:

    Pretty much every problem the modern world faces is due to overpopulation of the planet. Homo Sapiens, the ultimate invasive species.

  • "the story of the 21st Century is likely to be one of conflict stemming from increased competition for scarce resources."

    It will get worse before it gets better.

  • john danley says:

    @David White

    Inert gas asphyxiation works. Monatomics Without Chasers could be a non-profit organization for the promotion of global euthanasia.

  • Ok, I'm ambivalent–as usual. I've got photos of my daughter at her 3rd birthday party, running around the house with helium balloons and an expression of undiluted delight–the kind of image you take to your grave. OTOH, I cringe when I find yet another Mylar balloon ensnared in forest foliage. But I guess you could say it's not the helium it's the Mylar–can we ban Mylar balloons.

    Also, too, why does my computer insist that Mylar be capitalized? Who made that rule?

  • Another paranoid reason why they might be watering down the helium: mixing it with air makes it a lot more difficult for someone to use it for a 'final exit' in a painless DIY manner. There are people with medical issues who keep a secret canister of the old, non-diluted helium around just for this event.

  • HoosierPoli says:

    I took it as a more or less established principle of international relations that resource scarcity has essentially never started a war. I'd be interested to see specific counterexamples.

  • Duck and Penguin says:

    Wait — you can't … manufacture … helium. Unless, of course, you're talking about the synthesis of helium by hydrogen fusion, which if we were to attempt to supply helium demand this way using the technology we have today, would result in the extinction of humanit…. oh I get it now. Ha! Very clever!

  • @ Trollumination:

    Doesn't straight carbon dioxide work just as well? The American Humane Society recommends it as a physically painless form of euthenasia for pets and other small animals.

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