Helium isn't just used for party favors or for raising people's voices to the likes of Alvin and the Chipmunks. It is an important gas used in a number of industries from healthcare to high-tech manufacturing.
And a looming shortage is driving up prices around the world, which poses a problem for a number of businesses.
Helium is one of the most abundant elements in the universe. It is a byproduct of natural gas production. And because of the number of natural gas fields near Amarillo, Texas, the U.S. built a helium reserve there in 1925. Congress then mandated that the federal government keep a supply of this gas thinking it would be essential for space exploration and military reconnaissance.
But in 1996 the government realized they didn't need such large supplies of helium. So they decided to privatize the federal helium program and sell off their helium supply by 2015.
But now the price of helium has gone up as private helium production companies scramble to set up shop and meet demand.
Here's are some industries that might take a financial hit:
Particle accelerators such as the one at Fermilab in Illinois and the Large Hadron Collider on the France-Swiss border, smash particles into one another at nearly the speed of light. The particles then break up into smaller fragments, releasing energy in the process. Time magazine reports: "Supercooled helium is used to keep the magnets which run these accelerators cool, and keep the heat the reactions produce under control." Although the process doesn't require a lot of helium, a shorter supply could limit experiments and research on super heavy elements.
Helium is one of the noble gases which means it is inert and does not react with other elements. For that reason high-tech manufacturing uses it to create a "protective environment any time elements are combined to create products such as silicon wafers," Time magazine reports.
Because of helium's extremely low boiling point -- minus 452.1 degrees Fahrenheit -- it is an ideal substance for cooling superconducting magnets in MRIs. According to Time magazine, "Hospitals are generally the first in line for helium, so the shortage isn’t affecting them yet. But prices for hospital-grade helium may continue to go up, leading to higher health-care costs or, in the worst-case scenario, the need for a backup plan for cooling MRI machines."
A process known as tungsten arc welding is used to build ships. And inert gases such as helium are used in this process to shield the weld from atmospheric contaminants.
But the government is trying to find a way out of this mess. According to Popular Mechanics, "the U.S. Senate is considering a bill called the Helium Stewardship Act of 2012." If passed this will extend the helium sell-off deadline and allow the U.S. government to continue to supply helium at market prices. To date, Congress has not taken any action on the bill.
See also, Helium: The next hot commodity
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