What's behind the helium shortage?

Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS), Ithaca, N.Y.

When the federal government nudges its way into an industry -- any industry -- breaking up is hard to do. Take helium. Yes, it's for balloons, but also big science and industrial uses.

Washington's been trying to get out of the way for decades. But it's on its way to failing again.

This is a serious subject. But even congressmen can't stop themselves from puns about the federal helium program "floating along," and "what goes up never comes down."

We at Marketplace would never do that. We go straight to the history of the program, to the 1920s and '30s.

The Frank Capra Film "Dirigible" portrayed government management of helium for military blimps meant to counter the Germans' Hindenberg. But the technology crashed in the film, as it did in real life.

And yet, the federal helium program continued. In fact, the government stockpiled the stuff in the '60s.

Today, geologist Chip Groat, co-author of a federal study on the helium market, says the element serves at least two big uses beyond balloons: research and cooling MRI machines.

"It creates a low temperature environment in which the atomic physicists experiment would matter," Groat says. "And in the MRI the low temperature environment is extremely important.

By the '90s, Congress tried to wind down the strategic helium reserve. But then, the world started running out. Some blamed artificially low prices the feds charged helium suppliers.

"If those companies can buy the federal helium gas at a relatively low price, there is less incentive to develop it," says Penn State physicist Moses Chan, a member of a National Academies of Sciences panel studying the helium reserve program.

So in comes Congress to the rescue again. The helium program that was supposed to die this year is poised for extension. That may open the system up to a true market price.

Whatever happens, helium supplies are tight. So there's new interest in conservation, and alternative sources say, for making your voice go Alvin-and-the-Chipmunks-squeaky.

Indeed, there's an app for that.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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