Helium is the second lightest element on the periodic table.
It is most famous for filling up balloons that float, making your voice sound funny, and other tricks. But Helium is also used in industry for welding, for computers (supercomputers need liquid helium to run properly).
And over the last year there was something of a supply problem.
Very recently we heard a local morning program complaining that they could not get helium for a balloon that wanted to fill. This lead to a long bit about how part stores were rationing what helium they had and not doing any reservations for balloons at all.
How did this crisis come about, and will it end? For the former, you have to understand how helium is obtained and stored.
Helium, oddly enough is not produced, despite being the second most common element in the universe. In effect it is mined. It is a byproduct of natural gas and its purity can vary a lot. For a long time, most commercial companies were not interested in producing Helium, so it was left to the government to pick up the slack.
This resulted in something of an issue with the government, especially in a time where expenses are being watched carefully. The US government was storing helium at hideous cost for the benefit of a handful of industries. In 1996, after some media attention was spotlighted on the expense of this program Congress decided to sell off the helium and set things up so that the US government was out of the Helium business by 2015. The idea was that reserves would be sold off so that private industry could take over.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
What happened instead was a glut in the Helium market as the USA tried to sell off the reserves as fast as they could. This dropped the price so low that private industry had little reason to go into the Helium market – there was no money in it to be made.
Congress made some motions to act – the Helium Stewardship act of 2012 was designed to stretch out the resources, give extra time to the private industry, and other features. But the bill went to committee and has not passed.
Eventually, the glut ended with the excess supply being reined in. The result was shortages in various spots throughout the country. But the shortages may have just been local.
While at this years New York Toy Fair we asked a couple of companies whose lines include Helium based toys (such as the Remote Control Shark Blimp pictured). Both of them said pretty much the same thing: Things were tight for a while, but the industry will eventually kick in without too much more problems. Both companies expected that things would settle down once the US moved out of the industry. Prices were expected to get higher, but not extremely problematic.
Of course, both of these companies had a financial interested in saying ‘everything will be fine!!!!’. One of the companies sold only Helium based toys while the other had at least other products to fall back on. Nevertheless, it would seem that a company that was in the ‘late buggy whip’ stage of their existence would be hard pressed to justify the expense of displaying their toys at the Toy Fair.
The future of Helium seems a bit disheveled at the moment, but hopefully it will correct itself shortly.
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