Skip to main content

U.S. needs a strategy on helium

By Moses Chan and Jim Lancaster, Special to CNN
updated 11:30 AM EST, Sat March 2, 2013
The Spider-Man balloon is getting prepared for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
The Spider-Man balloon is getting prepared for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Moses Chan, Jim Lancaster: Everyone has benefited from research involving helium
  • Chan, Lancaster: We need a long-term strategy for managing this valuable resource
  • They say the scientific community in particular has been hard hit by helium shortages
  • Chan, Lancaster: The time is ripe to update the nation's policies for managing helium

Editor's note: Moses Chan, Evan Pugh professor of physics at Penn State University, served on the National Research Council committee that wrote the report, "Selling the Nation's Helium Reserve." Jim Lancaster, director of the National Research Council's Board on Physics and Astronomy, directed the study.

(CNN) -- If you've thrown a birthday party recently, you might have personally experienced the shortages or price hikes intermittently hitting the helium market.

Unfortunately, balloon customers are not the only ones being affected. Many helium users, from scientists to manufacturers in a number of industries, have experienced the negative impact of helium shortages and rising prices. If steps aren't taken to develop and put into place a long-term strategy for managing this valuable and non-renewable resource, things can get worse.

Everyone has benefited, to some degree, from research made possible by liquid helium. Cell phones, iPads and laptops are possible because of experiments enabled by liquid helium. In the medical world, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is but one example of a host of diagnostic and treatment tools that exist only as a result of groundbreaking experiments carried out by using helium. In fact, the strong and extremely stable magnetic field that MRI devices require to work is accomplished by immersing powerful superconducting magnets inside liquid helium. Manufacturers of fiber optics cable and semiconductors used in electronic components rely on helium. And these are just a few examples of the importance of helium.

Those who are particularly hard hit are members of the scientific community. An interruption in helium supply can cause weeks or even months of work to become useless. For many of these researchers, helium costs are a significant fraction of their operating budgets. The large increases in helium prices that they have experienced over the last few years have placed them in a tight financial bind.

Opinion: Don't deflate the party

So, is there anything that can be done?

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



One of the main causes of the current shortage is the nature of the helium market itself. Helium, unlike most other gases, is a minor byproduct in the production of natural gas. Those fissures and crevices that have trapped natural gas below the Earth's surface are also capable of trapping helium, although typically in small amounts. It takes a certain minimum level of helium concentration to make it economically viable to separate out the helium from the natural gas.

As a consequence, out of the thousands of sources of natural gas that exist, only 14 are being processed for their helium content. And when more than a few of those helium sources are shut down for maintenance and repair, as they have been over the last few months, helium shortages can occur.

Decades ago, the U.S. established the Federal Helium Reserve to provide a readily available supply of helium for defense, space, and scientific research needs. The reserve, located in the Texas panhandle, is the only long-term substantial storage source for helium in the world. In the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. bought and stored significant amounts of helium there. In 1996, Congress directed the Bureau of Land Management, the agency in charge of the Reserve, to sell off helium in order to recoup some of the costs associated with its purchase.

Under current law, those sales are to be completed by the beginning of 2015, less than two years away. Right now, the helium being sold by BLM accounts for more than 30% of the helium sold worldwide. Once BLM ends its sales of helium as required by current law, the impact on the availability and price for helium is expected to be significant.

At the request of BLM, the National Research Council studied these issues and made recommendations, including a series of steps to help properly manage the helium reserve for the long term, strategies to protect the most vulnerable of users such as scientists, and ways to develop and implement a plan to protect this very important resource.

The time is ripe to update the nation's policies and programs for managing helium. If it's done right, our children will continue to be able to celebrate their birthdays with balloons, and grow up to develop critical new technologies that they'll need to prosper in the next century.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Moses Chan and Jim Lancaster.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT