Brentan Alexander, Ph.D.

Scientist / Entrepreneur / Engineer

No, we’re not running out of Helium

I’m often frustrated when reading science coverage in the national press. There are often a number of inaccuracies and misleading narratives that are routinely embedded in the stories that seem to get picked up by a wide variety of outlets. Seeking a catchy headline or narrative, the articles often distort the science and draw erroneous conclusions (which makes me wonder, are all the articles in these papers where I have less insight and background as poorly researched?). The latest piece to draw my ire?

From Forbes: Humanity Is Thoughtlessly Wasting An Essential, Non-Renewable Resource: Helium

Reading the article, you are led to believe a few things: We waste a huge amount of helium every year, that party balloons and other extravagances are the primary culprit, that once lost to the atmosphere the helium is gone forever because *SPACE*, and that we are running out of helium which will shutdown portions of medicine and science.

Well….no.

Let’s start from the top. Do we waste helium? This really depends on what one means by ‘wasting’, but in a simple sense, yes…nearly all the helium we use is done in a one-time fashion that is then released to the atmosphere. Balloons are obvious, but use of helium in MRIs and superconducting magnets also allows for the escape of the helium. The article fails to explain WHY we do this though….and to me it’s pretty obvious. Helium is cheap! Capturing and recycling that helium from MRI machines and other uses just doesn’t make financial sense (or hasn’t in the past)…its cheaper to just let it go and go buy more. That balance may be changing, which is, quite simply, economics at work. We waste because we can.

OK you say, but we are still losing vast quantities of helium from balloons! We can’t possibly recycle that. The article notes that filling party balloons is the single most common use of helium, and quickly works to ruin our fun. What the article fails to note is that by volume party balloons are basically a rounding error in overall helium use. No less of an authority then the National Research Council makes this point. Right there in chapter 6 of this report is an investigation of helium uses. Party balloons? They are less than 40 MMscf a year, or less than 2% of usage in the U.S. Balloons aren’t our problem, so keep on partying 🎈🎈🎈.

But even that is a bad idea, you say, because that helium, once released, will just escape our earth and end up…in SPACE! This is my favorite part of this story, and why I think it keeps popping up in the popular press (seriously, just google ‘helium shortage’ and you’ll find dozens of articles over the last decade like this Forbes article). It’s just such a good visual, all that wasted helium drifting up, up, and away, never to be heard from again.

I call BS. Let’s run some numbers. First, helium loss from the upper reaches of our atmosphere is a real phenomenon, with the solar wind blowing the stuff away (we lose hydrogen that way too). How much do we lose? About 50g per second. That is less than 3% of our consumption rate (see my math here). So we are adding helium to our atmosphere far faster than it is being lost to space. It’s not being lost forever, it’s just being mixed in to our air. And what to the argument that the increase in helium in our atmosphere will increase the loss to space? Not much to that really…our annual consumption is just 0.00001% of the volume of He in the atmosphere today!

Which gets to the last argument this article makes: we’re running out of Helium. Nope. Take the number above and invert it….in our atmosphere alone we have something like 6-8 million years of supply at current consumption rates. And that ignores all the helium still in the ground.

So you’re saying there isn’t a problem?

Not quite…we do have periodic helium shortages (there have been 3 in the last 15 years). But this is fundamentally a supply/demand issue (and public policy too…the sale of the U.S. Helium Reserve, which previously was a government program to maintain helium supply, is also messing with the market) that comes back to price. There is plenty of helium in the world: whether you want to build more infrastructure to grab it from more natural gas wells (our current helium source) where it is otherwise released, or whether you want to build a plant to separate it from the air (unlikely to be very competitive against natural gas separation for a very long time) is simply a question of how much you’re willing to pay to get at it.

This indeed has profound impacts on science and medicine. That MRI test may get more expensive, and those superconducting magnets will cost a lot more to cool. And that collection of colorful paw patrol adverts floating over the picnic table at your next family BBQ may cost you a few more bucks as well. But they will all still be filled with helium.