Helium is almost gone
Updated: June 20, 2012 4:57PM
Will there be a black market for helium?
Could floating party balloons become illegal?
Could arrest warrants be issued for folks who take a hit of helium and talk funny?
Is it the end of giant cartoon-character balloons at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade?
These are just some of the questions I had last week after reading that Libertyville’s plans for giant parade balloons was deflated by the shortage in helium. And as I read on, I found out the shortage was worse.
Local balloon artists and balloon stores are being hit hard. They use helium to inflate the decorative balloons you see at weddings, graduations and other celebrations.
One local vendor said the cost of a tank of helium has jumped form $80 to $350. Another said their Waukegan supplier cut them off and they have to drive to Chicago to get some of the precious, lighter than-air gas.
How could this have happened?
Did some scathingly brilliant criminal mind come up with a plan to corner the helium market and hold the free world for ransom? Is this some weird plot of a new James Bond or Batman movie? Is Dr. No or the Joker behind this evil plot?
Or is this just part of the general decline of the world? Is Obama behind this? Is this just another liberal ploy to make sure everyone has helium and now we’ve run out?
Or is this a conservative plot to create a false sense of urgency and jack up the prices of helium sky high to make a ridiculously obscene profit?
Where the heck does helium come from anyway?
These are questions that need answers if we are to get to the bottom of the helium shortage and find some blame.
Turns out that helium is a non-renewable gas and there is limited supply of it here on earth. It is produced by the nuclear fusion process of the sun (that’s right, the sun) or by the slow decay of terrestrial rock.
There is no way to create it in the lab, and most of what we have was collected as a by-product of the production of natural gas.
So that’s where it comes from. But who is to blame for the shortage?
As they say in “Casablanca,” round up the usual suspects. That means the U.S. Congress.
And sure enough, Congress is the apparent cause of this worldwide shortage of helium, according to a 2010 article in The Independent. Back in 1996, Congress passed a law to sell off all of the U.S. helium reserves by 2015. That made helium cheap, too cheap to recycle. Sure enough, helium began flying off the shelves.
It took 4.7 billion years to make all the helium on earth. And 100 years of party balloons later, we’re almost out of gas.
And that gas is needed by hospitals to cool MRI machines, and NASA and the Department of Defense to purge fuel from its rockets.
I don’t know about you, but I’m never filling another balloon with helium or talking funny again.