A ballooning problem: the great helium shortage

It’s used in everything from kids parties to medicine – but now supplies are running so low scientists want to ration it. Steve Connor reports on the great helium shortage

It is the lighter-than-air gas that makes a party balloon float up to the ceiling, but a shortage of the element is threatening to disrupt critical research projects.

In 1996 the US government decided to start selling off its national helium reserve at rock-bottom prices, leading to a glut of cheap helium on the world market. Scientists believe this explains why oil companies have not bothered to collect much of the helium released to the air during the mining of natural gas. With the entire US strategic reserve expected to be sold off by 2015, irrespective of the market price, several multimillion-pound projects in the UK have had to be put on hold.

The supply of helium, an inert element with the lowest boiling point of any known substance, has now become so erratic that scientists are calling for a ban on all but the most essential uses – which could mean no more helium-filled party balloons. “The scarcity of helium is a really serious issue. I can imagine that in 50 years’ time our children will be saying ‘I can’t believe they used such a precious material to fill balloons,’” said Peter Wothers of Cambridge University, who gave the 2012 Royal Institution Christmas lectures.

“There is a finite supply of this lighter-than-air gas on Earth so if we keep using it for non-essential things like party balloons, where we’re just letting it float off into space, we could be in for some serious problems in around 30 to 50 years’ time,” Dr Wothers said.

The shortage has mainly affected research centres studying the brain using magnetoencephalography (MEG) scanners, which are similar to the MRI machines used in hospitals but need to be topped up regularly with liquid helium (helium super-cooled to minus 269C, just four degrees above the lowest possible temperature, absolute zero).

Last year, MEG scanners at the universities of Glasgow, London, Oxford and Cambridge were all affected by shortages of helium. “We increasingly face regular periods of forced shut-down of our multimillion-pound facility because of these difficulties, and we are told the problem will only get worse,” said Mark Stokes, a cognitive neuroscientist at Oxford’s Centre for Human Brain Activity.

“It is difficult to imagine an adequate market incentive to collect helium during natural gas extraction while the US government is selling off its entire stockpile at bargain prices,” Dr Stokes said.

“Cheap helium also drives misuse. A staggering 8 per cent of the world’s helium supply is currently used for filling party balloons,” he said.

Even though helium is the second most common element on Earth, only a finite amount is available for use and this store is non-renewable. Some experts suggest supplies could be depleted by the middle of the century.

Liquid helium is critical for the cooling of infrared detectors, nuclear reactors and the machinery of wind tunnels. It is also a vital ingredient of the space industry: Nasa uses the inert gas to purge potentially explosive fuel from its rockets.

Professor Ray Dolan of University College London leads the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, which had stop taking bookings for its scanner in 2012 because of helium shortages. “We have now had to invest in expensive helium-capture technology to recover some of what is burnt off,” he said, “and this decision was driven by a need to insulate ourselves against uncertainty over supply and cost.”

Helium is also critical for the massive magnets used by the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) in Geneva. Serge Claudet, who leads the LHC’s work on cryogenics (the branch of physics dealing with the production and effects of very low temperatures), said Cern’s vast size has helped to insulate it against the recent vagaries of the helium market. Unlike most smaller scientific centres Cern can afford to use two or three helium suppliers, helping to keep its costs down.

“It’s like any industry: you have to be protected against fluctuations in the cost of a raw material, and for us helium is a strategically important raw material because without it we would not be able to function,” Dr Claudet said.

Light work: Uses of helium

Airships

As helium is lighter than air it can be used to inflate airships, blimps and balloons, providing lift. Although hydrogen is cheaper and more buoyant, helium is preferred as it is non-flammable.

iPhones

Helium is used to cool the magnets used to make semiconductors for mobile phones, and fibre-optic cables are made in a helium atmosphere to stop bubbles getting trapped.

Balloons

Helium, like hydrogen, is lighter than air but unlike hydrogen it is inert, so there is little risk of an explosion. This makes the gas perfect for inflating balloons, whether for weather devices or for party poppers.

Deep-sea diving

Divers and others working under pressure use mixtures of helium, oxygen and nitrogen to breathe under water, avoiding the problems caused by breathing ordinary air under high pressure, which include disorientation.

Medical scanners

Helium’s low boiling point makes it useful for cooling metals needed for superconductivity, such as the superconducting magnets used in medical MEG scanners and specialist brain-scanning equipment.

Space shuttles

Rocket fuel consists of highly explosive liquid hydrogen and oxygen. Helium is used to clean the fuel tanks when the craft is grounded because the gas is inert and therefore safe.

Cern

The Large Hadron Collider uses helium to keep its equipment super-cooled. Once a particle accelerator is filled with helium it needs to be constantly topped up.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner / Caretaker / Storeman

£15500 - £17680 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A position has become available...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Sales - SaaS B2B

£60000 - £120000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This conference call startup i...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital and print design a...

Day In a Page

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

Mark Hix goes summer foraging

 A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

Aaron Ramsey interview

Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms