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  • Take a look at this balloon, and this one and this one.

  • They're all filled with helium.

  • It's the second most abundant element in the known universe.

  • So why then are you reading headlines like this one and this one and this

  • one about how the Earth is running out of helium?

  • When Party City announced its financial results for the first quarter of

  • 2019, the company also announced it would be closing 45 of its 870 stores.

  • Party City said the closures were unrelated to the helium shortage but at

  • the time CEO James Harrison said a lack of helium was hurting its balloon

  • business and as a result its bottom line.

  • It's not just Party City bearing the brunt of the helium shortage.

  • A lot of big industries have a lot at stake-from tech to health care.

  • Here's why the world's supply of helium is running short.

  • First a brief history lesson.

  • Helium was identified in 1868 by French Astronomer Pierre Janssen, almost

  • unintentionally.

  • While looking at the sun's rays during a solar eclipse, Janssen noticed a

  • strange yellow light coming from the surface of the sun.

  • It was something we didn't have a name for yet.

  • The name came when British astronomer Norman Lockyer also observed the

  • same yellow light being emitted.

  • He named the newly-discovered element helium, after Helios, the Greek god

  • of the sun.

  • And while party balloons may be the most well-known use of helium, it's not

  • the most common.

  • Helium is a noble gas which means it's nonreactive, nonflammable and on

  • Earth it has no color or smell.

  • In its liquid form, Helium can reach extremely low temperatures without

  • freezing which makes it incredibly useful for many scientific purposes.

  • Phil Kornbluth has been in the helium business for over 35 years and knows

  • how useful it can be.

  • Liquid helium is used as refrigerant for the superconducting magnets that

  • are basically the guts of an MRI scanner.

  • So that's the largest application and the one that many people don't

  • realize that there's helium involved when they're getting an MRI scan.

  • It cleans fuel tanks on rockets, it's used in optical fibers to bring

  • internet to the masses, to manufacture semiconductors and a lot more.

  • So what's at the root of the helium shortage?

  • The shortage is mostly due to the fact that existing source of helium have

  • been in decline or have been depleted partially. So

  • the shortage is really more about supply going down as opposed to demand

  • going up.

  • Helium might be incredibly abundant in the universe but it's rare on Earth

  • and extremely difficult to capture.

  • It's a non-renewable resource and it's mostly found in underground

  • chambers where radioactive decay causes uranium to release helium into

  • natural gas reserves over millions of years.

  • Oil companies extract the helium through a process known as fractional

  • distillation, where natural gases are broken down into their individual

  • elements to isolate the helium.

  • But once the companies have the helium it's nearly impossible to store it

  • without leaking.

  • And once the helium is in the atmosphere it easily escapes into space.

  • The United States has been the largest producer of helium since 1925,

  • thanks to a massive reserve found between Texas, Oklahoma and

  • Kansasfittingly named the Federal Helium Reserve.

  • Recently though, the tiny nation of Qatar has grown to become the second

  • largest exporter of helium in the world.

  • But recent political tensions and embargoes in the region forced the

  • state-owned natural gas company, RasGas, to shutter its helium plants in

  • 2017 thereby choking the global supply chain.

  • Tensions have since cooled but RasGas merged with QatarGas in 2018 and

  • limitations still exist for the region.

  • The embargo of Qatar remains in place and the supply chain from Qatar is

  • longer, more costly and less reliable than it would be without that

  • embargo.

  • This is not the first helium scare in recent years.

  • In 1996, the United States passed the Helium Privatization Act.

  • It ordered the U.S.

  • government to sell off the entire Federal Helium Reserve.

  • The plan was to sell the helium at a fixed price rather than at auction.

  • This ensured that the gas would sell quickly but most likely be used

  • wastefully. Nearly two decades later in 2012 experts warned of dire

  • consequences due to dwindling helium supplies.

  • So a year later Congress passed the Helium Stewardship Act, which required

  • helium to be sold at auction rather than at a fixed price.

  • This won't do anything to stop the intended depletion of the Federal

  • Helium Reserve which is still expected to close down production in 2021.

  • In the past, new helium reserves were discovered by accident but geologists

  • are beginning to research new ways to find helium reserves under the

  • earth's surface.

  • There is a lot of exploration going on in the Four Corners area of the

  • southwestern United States and there is also some exploration going on in

  • Saskatchewan Alberta Montana.

  • I think the 2020s is will be a better decade were for helium

  • supplies than the 2010s to be honest.

  • The goal is to keep MRIs powered up, the Internet flowing and your party

  • balloons from falling flat.

Take a look at this balloon, and this one and this one.

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Why There Is A Helium Shortage

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    joey joey posted on 2021/05/16
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