Much Ado About Helium: A Noble Fight Over a Noble Gas
The need for legislation protecting the federal government's helium supply didn't just come out of thin air. Industry groups spoke up to help ease shortages.
It may be the second-most-common element in the universe, but a number of industries were feeling the pressure from an impending deadline affecting the country’s helium supply.
With a new bill in Congress, that pressure is likely to ease soon. And industry groups, especially in the scientific world, are thankful a federal program appears headed for a reprieve.
True story: In the wake of World War I, the U.S. government decided to create a stockpile of helium for military uses. (Military blimps were kind of a thing back then, and the helium supply was initially gathered as part of an arms race.)
But as the decades wore on, it became clear that while there were significant military and civilian uses of helium, it didn’t necessarily make sense for the federal government to run the program. President Bill Clinton signed a law leading to the Federal Helium Program’s eventual termination in 1996. The last of the government’s supply is scheduled to be sold off later this year.
Problem is, no permanent replacement for the program has surfaced in the private sector, prompting fears of shortages. Congress stepped in, and on Friday, the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act, a House bill that would delay the dismantling of the program for a few more years, passed on a 394–1 vote. (The Senate has a similar bill in the works.)
Industry groups are largely in favor of the decision, with the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, the Information Technology Industry Council, the Materials Research Society, and the Semiconductor Industry Association among the organizations formally backing the bill, according to the House Committee on Natural Resources.
The Semiconductor Industry Association underlined the scientific usage of the gas in a statement after the passage of the House bill. “Helium is essential for a range of advanced manufacturing sectors, including semiconductors, fiber optics, medical imaging, chemicals, and aerospace. It also has important applications related to scientific research, national security, and space exploration, among many others,” the association stated.
The group notes that the eventual shutdown of the program played a role in the recent increase in helium prices and the current shortage.
“a finite supply”
How real is the shortage? It depends on who you ask. And if there’s a shortage, should we be using helium to fill party balloons? Some in the scientific world say no.
In the anti-balloon camp, Professor Peter Wothers of Cambridge University told The Independent that “there is a finite supply of this lighter-than-air gas on Earth” and that it is being depleted for novelty purposes. But Daniel A. Flynn, chairman of the Balloon Council, notes that the current shortage is largely due to supply-chain issues. As helium is a by-product of natural gas production, it is directly affected by fluctuations in natural gas prices. As natural gas prices have fallen, so has helium production.
“While the temporary shortage is a call to be smart and judicious with helium use in the very short term, it does not justify the alarmist rhetoric of those who have called for an end to balloon sales,” Flynn wrote in a March op-ed piece for CNN.
While helium is common in the universe due to its richness in solar rays, according to The Guardian, it doesn’t reach the Earth’s surface, though the moon could someday prove a key alternative source for the gas.