World Helium Supply Could Be Gone in 30 Years

In this picture released by Father Adelir de Carli's parish, de Carli, flies during a balloon fundraising flight in Parana state, Brazil, in this April 20, 2008 file photo. CBS

We'd hate to burst anybody's balloon, but the world is quickly running out of helium.

The dwindling supply of the inert gas has been a growing concern since the mid 2000s. Now a group of scientists tells the Independent that the world's supply could be gone completely in less than 30 years.

The problem is twofold. First, helium is a non-renewable resource, mainly collected from the very slow decay of radioactive elements - and we're using it much faster than it's being created.

Second, Congress passed a law in 1996 mandating that the U.S. helium reserve - by far the largest in the world - be sold off by 2015, irrespective of market price. The supply appeared plentiful then. Now, not so much.

The impact goes far beyond not being able to inflate birthday balloons. Liquid helium is used in cooling medical equipment and the gas has numerous industrial applications. It's used in manufacturing LCD TV screens. Oh, and it helps power space shuttle and other rockets.

What's more, a far rarer isotope of the gas, Helium-3, plays a pivotal role in the research of nuclear fusion, one of the world's great (if far-off) clean energy hopes. Wired had an eye on that problem a decade ago.

But even plain Jane helium is "being squandered," Cornell University physics professor Robert Richardson told the Independent.

"Richardson believes the price for helium should rise by between 20- and 50-fold to make recycling more worthwhile," the paper reported. He said a typical party balloon should cost as much as $100, to reflect the true value of the gas.

"Once helium is released into the atmosphere in the form of party balloons or boiling helium it is lost to the Earth forever," he said.
  • CBSNews

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