The world isn’t light on helium, but mining it is no party

More scientists need to recycle this noble gas.

This past week, one of the country’s most popular party balloon companies, New Jersey-based Party City, announced it would close 45 of its 870 locations throughout the country. According to the company, on average, it has already closed anywhere from 10 to 15 of its stores each year (at least in the past few years) due to a variety of factors. The recent uptick of shop closures is specifically due to dropped sales in the first quarter.

But there may have been another cause: A global helium shortage.

While the official issued statement doesn’t directly connect shortages in helium supplies to the retail shutterings, it does say though that limited helium supply was taken into account when considering the outcomes of the first quarter earnings. The party store is stocked with far more than helium, but filling balloons with the noble gas is among its core responsibilities. In an age of online orders, helium also physically brings people into the stores, providing an indirect way of making even more of a profit by enticing people to buy more things once they get there.

Releases like these, as well as mentions every Thanksgiving when the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade overtakes American’s living room televisions, makes it seem as if humanity in a global helium shortage crisis. Helium is indeed a rare substance, and its resources are finite. But the state of our world’s helium supply is far more nuanced than that.

Are we really running out of helium?

The truth is, the Earth is not really running out of helium. But our ability to use the helium we have is indeed limited.

From a universe standpoint, according to Christopher Rithner, a senior research scientist at Colorado State University, helium is incredibly abundant. But on Earth, the supply is relatively limited. The biggest reason for that is simple physics. Our planet is essentially a big rock with a molten core made up of a variety of elements. But helium doesn’t combine with any of them. So, just like in the universe outside Earth, it remains free floating. And helium is so light that Earth’s gravity is not sufficient to hold onto it. It actually reaches its own escape velocity and easily makes its way out of our atmosphere.

The reason we haven’t lost all of our helium yet is because substances like uranium decayed very slowly and formed the noble gas, which then got trapped under rocks and other surrounding minerals. This provides decent reservoirs of helium, but they are located in areas like Qatar (which accounts for about 79 percent of our imports), which are harder to mine because of political and economic challenges. So, from a scientific standpoint, the world’s supply of helium is not particularly small, but it’s limited, as is our ability to gain access to it.

How big of an effect do party balloons have?

Balloons are by far the most visible forms of helium use—their bright-colored rubber and latex literally float sky-high in the air. But other less visible uses take up the bulk of our country’s helium supply. When you immerse solid objects into a vat of liquid helium, the objects becomes superconductive, which allows electricity to flow continually without generating heat or resistance. This unique characteristic makes helium popular in a variety of scientific endeavors which include forcing fuel into rocket engines that go into space and in MRI machines where effectively cools the imaging magnets.

In 2018, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), “lifting gas” (which includes hot air balloons, airships, and other floating devices in addition to party balloons) accounted for 17 percent of all helium use. Party balloons, Rithner surmises, is an even smaller percentage of this amount. Meanwhile, MRIs ate up about 30 percent of our total 2018 helium use. Other laboratory applications used 14 percent; welding consumed 9 percent; 6 percent went to engineering and scientific applications; and leak detection and semiconductor manufacturing at 5 percent each.

So how can we keep what we have? Rithner and a number of other scientists who regularly use helium have started to recycle their own helium. For their experiments, the helium comes in large thermos-like bottles. To keep the supply from leaking out into the atmosphere (where Earth’s gravity sends it out into space forever) the researchers attach a compressor that recaptures the gas, pressurizes it, and stores it. After purifying it and condensing it back into a liquid form, the scientists can then reuse that helium again. In all, this capture method recycles about 80 percent of the total original helium in the containers.

Not every scientist recaptures their helium in this manner, Rithner says. A 2019 report from the USGS states that in the United States, “helium used in large-volume applications is seldom recycled…In the rest of the world, helium recycling is practiced more often.” But Rithner says he hopes the technique, which is continually being perfected, will catch on with more scientists and potentially even major balloon users in the future.