Nobel Prize Winner Warns World: We're Running Out of Helium

By Joseph Calamia | August 25, 2010 2:56 pm

balloonThe United States currently holds around half of the world’s helium supply and we’re selling it, for cheap.

We’ve known this for a while. We started stockpiling the stuff near Amarillo, Texas in 1925, in part for dirigible use, and stepped up reserves in the 1960s as a Cold War asset. In 1996, Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act mandating that the United States sell the gas at artificially low prices to get rid of the stockpile by 2015. This February, the National Research Council published a report estimating that, given increasing consumption, the world may run out of helium in 40 years. That’s bad news given helium’s current applications in science, technology, and party decorations–and possible future applications in fusion energy.

Now physicist Robert Richardson, who won a 1996 Nobel Prize for work using helium-3 to make superfluids, has come forward to stress the folly of underselling our supply of the natural resource. He suggested in several interviews that the gas’s price should mirror its actual demand and scarcity. He estimates that typical party balloons should cost $100 a pop.

“They couldn’t sell it fast enough and the world price for helium gas is ridiculously cheap,” Professor Richardson told a summer meeting of Nobel laureates…. “Once helium is released into the atmosphere in the form of party balloons or boiling helium it is lost to the Earth forever, lost to the Earth forever,” he emphasised. [The Independent]

If we don’t heed Richardson’s warning, here are some sources the United States might have to tap when we run out:

The Air

The current U.S. helium supply formed from billions of years worth of radioactive decay and accrued near uranium and thorium deposits. Though it’s possible to separate helium out of the air, Richardson warns that it will cost a lot more. He told New Scientist:

“There is no chemical means to make helium. The supplies we have on Earth come from radioactive alpha decay in rocks. Right now it’s not commercially viable to recover helium from the air, so we have to rely on extracting it from rocks. But if we do run out altogether, we will have to recover helium from the air and it will cost 10,000 times what it does today.” [New Scientist]

Other Countries

If we sell off all of our helium that means we’ll likely have to import it later–and c0mpetition could be fierce. China and India’s developing science and tech industries will also likely want a piece of the He pie.

Emerging powers such as China and India are ramping up helium-hungry activities like chipset fabrication, space programs, and cryogenic research…. Now, the NRC report warns, if the US does not soon cease selling off its reserves, within 10 to 15 years the country will be forced to import most of its helium from the only other near-term sources, gas fields in the Middle East and Russia. [Seed]

Other Planets

Another place where helium occurs naturally is, of course, in the gas balls we call stars. Researchers think that the solar wind from our sun may have deposited some helium-3 on the moon’s surface. If we use that up too, we could look a little further, say Uranus or Neptune, which have helium-rich atmospheres. We’re guessing that the party balloon prices will suffer accordingly.

“The moon is the El Dorado of helium-3,” says [futurist Marshall] Savage, and he’s right: Every star, including our sun, emits helium constantly. Implanted in the lunar soil by the solar wind, the all-important gas can be found on the moon by the bucketful. Associate professor Tim Swindle and his colleagues at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona have already begun prospecting. Swindle has mapped likely helium-3 deposits on the moon by charting the parts of the lunar landscape most exposed to solar wind against the locations of mineral deposits that best trap the element. [Wired]

Related content:
80beats: A Blazing Hot Helium Rain Falls on Jupiter
80beats: Found: Primordial Magma From the Hot Dawn of the Earth
80beats: For a Real Blast, Strap a Nuclear Reactor to a Spaceship
80beats: Nature vs Solar Power: Environmentalists Clash Over the Mojave Desert

Image: flickr / Shiny Things

  • James Bond

    There have been a number of press articles saying the world is running out of helium recently. These articles all seem to be based on one so called expert (Cornell professor of physics Robert Richardson), who is probably paid by those companies which wish to use hydrogen for leaky high altitude airships or who think they will loose funding as a result of the LEMV or HAA programs, where the US military are using funds that might have gone to surveillance aircraft or satellites. Anybody can find out in about 5 minutes of research that the idea of the world running out of helium is nonsense and bears no relation whatsoever to the facts.
    The fact of the matter is revealed by the readily obtainable authoritative Mineral Commodity Summary for Helium for 2010, prepared by the US Geological Survey.

    “As of December 31, 2006, the total helium reserves and resources of the United States were estimated to be 20.6 billion cubic meters (744 billion cubic feet). This includes 4.25 billion cubic meters (153.2 billion cubic feet) of measured reserves, 5.33 billion cubic meters (192.2 billion cubic feet) of probable resources, 5.93 billion cubic meters (213.8 billion cubic feet) of possible resources, and 5.11 billion cubic meters (184.4 billion cubic feet) of speculative resources. Included in the measured reserves are 0.67 billion cubic meters (24.2 billion cubic feet) of helium stored in the Cliffside Field Government Reserve, and 0.065 billion cubic meters (2.3 billion cubic feet) of helium contained in Cliffside Field native gas. The Hugoton (Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas), Panhandle West, Panoma, Riley Ridge, and Cliffside Fields are the depleting fields from which most US helium is extracted. These fields contain an estimated 2.7 billion cubic meters (96 billion cubic feet) of helium.” That says that 0.735 of somewhere between 4.25 to 20.6 billion cubic meters of total US helium reserves is contained in what used to be the National Helium Reserve. Those figures are just the US Reserves, and do not count the rest of the world. Russia and Algeria alone have another 3.5 billion cubic meters of proven reserves which have barely been tapped.
    For some reason the latest Commodity Survey omits a lot of reserve estimates which used to be tabulated for foreign lands. However, the old surveys are still on line, so you can still judge for yourself. For example, the 2002 survey:

    “Helium resources of the world exclusive of the United States were estimated to be about 15 billion cubic meters.” This is what it calls the reserve base, which simply means the figures have not yet been proven but are informed estimates.
    By the way, 20.6 billion + 15 billion is 35.6 billion total cubic meters for the world. Just for the fun of calculating, that would fill 178,000 Hindenburgs, or somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.78 trillion party balloons.
    The issue here is not necessarily that nothing is wrong with the way helium is being handled currently. It is simply the same issue which is present in every one of the “running out of X” scenarios. Namely, that whatever is settled should be based on informed opinion, not hasty and overly micro-focused conclusions based on inaccurate data.
    Regards JB (Airship & Blimp Consultant

  • Joseph Calamia

    JB — Thanks for the comment, but the stories are based on more than Richardson’s statements. A National Research Council report published earlier this year, and linked above, also cites USGS surveys. It estimates (by looking at global reserves and the current global helium refining rate) that we’ll run out in around 100 years. As mentioned above, the report also estimates, given current increasing demand, that we will run out in 40 years. Chapter 4 of the report breaks it down: (

  • James Bond

    Hi folks,
    Most helium is obtained as a byproduct of the liquifaction of natural gas and to talk of it running out before natural gas runs out is nonsense. The shift to alternative energy sources makes it difficult to predict how long natural gas reserves will last, but even at present high consumption levels it will be hundereds of years time.
    The consumption of helium could be reduced if the government insisted NASA who use a lot of helium purging rocket fuel tanks did what other countries do and recycled the helium using proper enclosures and a purification plant. If the price of helium does rise, a lot of the specialist welding that uses helium can be done with Argon.
    The forward projection of helium reserves does not take into account new discoveries, for example the Algerian gas field is fairly recent and there will be other new gas fields discovered and developed that yield significant supplies of helium.
    Regards JB (LTA comedy site

  • Brian Too

    Just raise the price. People will start treating the gas more carefully, usage will fall and the reserves will last longer. Simple!

  • m

    Doesn’t work that way Brian. Look at hydro, water, gasoline, etc etc. Price keeps going up and up and up….it barely stops usage.

    Gold is another example…inflated prices havent stopped a lot of its consumption.

    I’m reminded of our super left wing city government. they spout off rhetoric about conservation and such for water consumption. Then – they turn around and raise the rates because everyone is lowering consumption and the city is not making any money as a result of NOT selling ENOUGH water.

    Use less = higher prices
    Use more = higher prices.

    when it comes to natural resources….the typical supply/demand logic simply doest not apply.

  • TerryS.

    “But if we do run out altogether, we will have to recover helium from the air and it will cost 10,000 times what it does today.”

    Hmmm…First the “But if…”, then a guess at the future cost based on today’s technology. I wonder how much it would have cost to recover helium from the air in 1925 when the US first started stockpiling it? And this is after he was quoted as saying:

    “Once helium is released into the atmosphere…it is lost to the Earth forever, lost to the Earth forever,”

    Really? This from a Nobel Prize winner?

  • Sriram

    How come Prof. Tim Swindle is sounding as if he wants to swindle Helium out of the moon ? Just kidding on the name play!!

  • Jack

    TerryS, if you read the article correctly, the government never extracted helium from air in 1925. It is a natural gas occurring next to deposits of uranium and thorium.

  • Hydrophilia

    > 5. 5. m Says:
    > Doesn’t work that way Brian. Look at hydro, water, gasoline, etc etc.
    >Price keeps going up and up and up….it barely stops usage.
    Well, when gas rose to $5 usage dropped. Increase gasoline to $30/gal and usage will plummet. If power ran us $1 per we would waste a lot less of that as well.

    > Gold is another example…inflated prices havent stopped a lot of its consumption.
    That price increase is driven by hoarders/investors, not consumption. See also Tulipmania… *grin*

    In this case, the market price is driven down by the decision of the US gov to dump He on the market, depressing prices. It would be an interesting experiment to stop selling and see where the price would stabilize, then sell when it rises above that.

    According to numbers I’ve looked up, the worldwide production is about 2 billion CF each year and usage is about 6 billion. That is a big and expensive gap and I’d feel a lot happier knowing that at least the US is moderating it’s sell-off to wean us off gently rather than crashing in 2015. Asymptotic curve, anyone?

    And Terry S, the helium leaves the atmosphere fairly fast as the atoms move fast enough to head off into space. Sorry I don’t have the half-life numbers…

  • James Bond

    Hi folks,
    In my last comment I pointed out that apart from suspected the so called expert is being paid by an industry or company that will benefit from rising helium prices, his calculations completely ignore the vast reserves of helium in Russia and Algeria. Now you can add Australia to the list of countries with serious helium reserves, although they are only just starting exploration of some gas fields the figures at the end of the article look good. Of course the gas company concerned would love to see the US stop selling off its helium reserve. SEE:–6530.html
    Regards JB (LTA comedy site

  • mri peeps

    riddle me this batman-

    I am an MRI technologist, what happens to my job in a few years.

    We use helium to protect our magnet, occasionally it gets quenched
    which means the helium escapes into the atmosphere.

    thank goodness it does not happen often, only when there is a major
    elctrical or magnetic issue.

  • claygarden

    Very interesting. After doing some research, apparently we can thank the 104th-106th Congress, under the leadership of Republican Majority house Leader Dick Armey and think-tanks such as the CATO Institute for the passage of the helium Privatization Act of 1996. While Bill Clinton was President at that time, (R) Dick Armey held power in the Republican-majority Congress, along with (R) Tom DeLay & Jack Abramoff. Do your own research. It’s all politics and economics. Free Market Economy. blah blah blah

  • Uranium

    James Bond (and other critics)-
    I’m sorry but relative to the Nobel Prize winner, who won the prize according to his work on helium, and who has spent the last 50 years or so as an expert of the field working at prestigious US universities– what you google and find in wikipedia doesn’t hold a torch to what he’s saying.
    So, really. Deny as you might, your theories don’t contain the validity that his does.

  • bond james

    Helium-3 is a much rarer quantity than regular helium everytime you waste regular helium however you waste helium three. both of these are irreplacable, unlike fossil fuels, (where there are alternative forms of energy) Helium three and regular helium are essential to the study of low tmeperature physics. its the only thing that lets you cool materials to really low temperatures.

    This is much more important than helium baloons, if helium 3 runs out we will find low temperature research slowing down/stopping.

    why should we care about low temperature? Well, while your cell phone doesnt work at minus270 degrees, it was only possible for us to make cell phones because research done on silicon at very low temperatures helped us understand how things work. computers harddisks, display screens…. everything we have developed over the last 50 years stems from low t emperature physics research in some way.

    And its more than just Robert Richardson, helium three cannot be bought on the market anymore for love or money. Oxford Instruments which makes cryostats for research labs recently had to buy helium three on the black market for an undisclosed amount. and I know personally that two professors at City university of new york have been travelling to labs of old /retiring scientists trying to scavenge helium 3 for their cryostat. the scarcity is just a fact of life now, james bond needs to work in a lab or start filling his party balloons with hydrogen….jsut keep a fire extinguisher handy.

  • Reelcheeper

    This is a wake up call to America, the most wasteful country in the world. Some people don’t think running out of helium is a serious issue, or they don’t even know that we are running out, so they go out and buy 50 helium balloons and let them all float away (or use them to make their voice sound annyoing). But most people don’t know that helium is irreplaceable and that America’s supply has almost run out. I think it’s time we raise the price of helium balloons so people won’t keep on wasting an increasingly scarce element for the sole purpose of fun. Also, I wish this shortage would get as much publicity as the oil shortage (and oil can be replaced by many other renewable and nonrenewable resources, unlike helium).

    I know this won’t happen (at least for a long time), but I would like to see helium balloons completely removed from the market. Not only are they a main contributing factor to the helium shortage, but they also pollute the earth after popping in the atmosphere and falling back to the ground.

    Another thing: when America has no helium left, we will have to start buying it from some countries that we aren’t exactly friends with.

  • Johny V

    To “James Bond” (Post 1, 3 and 10)

    You are full of sh@t friend.

    Your type, who spin the facts with misdirection and strawman arguments, will always be spotted by those with a keen eye.

    You dare openly mock and question the intelligence of a Noble pize winning scientist as Robert Richardson but you leave not proof of your background… although we can gain an insight by what you call yourself: “James Bond”.

    Fancy yourself a spy or the like? Or do you have a vested interest to be the first to always leave your false, misleading propaganda on any web story attempting to warn Americans to do something against the sell off of this extremely valuable resource?


    Americans must wake up to the traitors in our own government who are SELLING OFF EVERY VALUABLE RESOURCE WE HAVE LEFT AT PENNIES ON THE DOLLAR!

    No country can ANY WHERE NEAR the Helium stock piled in the USA and strangely every time anyone writes a warning or tries to post the truth, as seen here, it gets attacked by traitors such as “James Bond”.

    The BOTTOM LINE IS THAT HELIUM IS A VERY VALUABLE RESOURCE AND WASTING ANY RESOURCE SHOULD NOT BE DONE. Facts are that China and India are acting like leaches and are quietly RAPING the USA of our helium supply, fact. Research how much helium that they PUBLICLY post, never mind what they are truly taking behind close doors.

    Many insiders have been warning Americans that traitors are giving away Americas helium supplies to foreign governments without direct oversight. PLEASE FIGHT FOR AMERICA BY CALLING CONGRESS TO DEMAND AN INVESTIGATION OF THE OUTRIGHT THEFT OF THE USA HELIUM SUPPLY TO FOREIGN INTERESTS.

    WAKE UP my fellow Americans, or sleep forever in the disgrace of our own apathy!

  • McMonical the 3rd

    Well said Johny V.

    I too, have noticed the massive uptake in propaganda, as of late, against any form of alert or warning to the USA’s depleting Helium reserves.

    Not only is the US helium reserves in dire need of patriotic oversight and immediate suspension of ALL sales until a comprehensive GAO audit/investigation can be completed; the US should also demand an investigation on the give-away & disposal of Helium in it’s reserves as well. That’s right, not only is the US selling off its reserves at a cost that defies believe (compared to what it cost foreign interests to mine/manufacture crude helium to it’s pure state), the US is giving away it’s helium by trade agreements or in classified projects which list foreign interest.
    One last area that boggles the mind is how the US is “disposing” millions of cubic feet of Helium, without a solid reason.
    Take a close look here and then research more in-depth on your own:

    Be careful of anyone like the poster “James Bond” who reasoning is unsound and indirectly tries to bring doubt to someone with such a great name as Robert Richardson. Anyone with even a basic understanding of the importance of such valuable rare non renewable resource as helium, would never attempt to mislead people into thinking that it is not important or that Americans should not pay attention when their helium is basically being stolen from them while right under their noses. Hey “James Bond”, even though there is untold tens of billions of barrels of crude oil, would you foolish argue that we should not be concerned with it as a resource? Every word you write, is nothing more than a spin on the facts and I would guess that you work for a company which needs cheap helium or like “Johny V” said, you are payed to misdirect the American public so that your people/country (China or India?) can steal one of the only valuable things the US does NOT need to import! Matter of fact, Helium is one of the only things that it does not purchase from other countries and at the same time manufactures, as well as mines from crude to pure, all within it’s own borders.

    Yes, Americans MUST wake up and take back their great country…. and spot traitors like “James Bond” who is doing everything they can to keep people ignorant of the REAL facts. Sadly, the USA has been taken over from the inside out by a handful of traitors and foreigners who are still loyal to their mother lands.

  • noble prize

    They couldnt sell it fast enough and the world price for helium gas is ridiculously cheap……..

  • Nikki B.

    Awesome facts! I knew some but there was one I didn’t know about.

  • Jack Moorman

    If you have ever taken a chemistry class then you have most likely heard of this wonderful law called the conservation of matter. Matter cannot be crated or destroyed. It can be taken apart and tossed around to other parts of the world but not destroyed. Since Helium is not a compound, it’s an element (meaning you can’t break it down anymore), it’s still here on this planet, our gravity is too great for it to wonder off too far (why do you think we use the shuttle for, fashion?). But if you know the basics then you will realize that it’s not feasible that we are running out of Helium. Another thing, if I understand this properly, we get Helium from NATURAL GAS and unlike popular belief we are far from burning all that up. I doubt we have this Helium shortage (if we did then a caring government would have already taken it off the market), the only thing that we have is high levels of arrogance from the believers and greedy people after gain from the chaos.

  • Alpha Particle

    Alpha radiation is the nuclei of He sans 2 electrons or He2+ (doubly ionized). Can some clever chemist figure a way to add 2 electrons to achieve a stable arrangement or is that too much to ask? And what about nuclear fusion of 4 H atoms fusing to form a He atom (ok you get some positrons & neutrinos in the process – use the positrons in positron emission tomography or PET scans)? Please enlighten me to the obstacles… and what about other transmutations? Isn’t there some reaction that spits out a He atom?

  • shabbir

    Planet of Earth Energy Crisis.

    Dear Sir,

    The Subject matter is all over the World facing Energy problem, So I am trying to
    Explain an idea for Old & New Dams / Reservoirs Hydro electric projects Civil Design Geometry Can be modifying in Architectural Transition to increase our energy potential. Because we are Losing heavy quantum of already storage water in our Big Dams and its relevant projects to generate Hydro Electric old technology, Now it must be need to convert into new theory of Scientific Technology as per utilizing in the way of experiment with foreign expertise at any Hydro electric base Model of concern Department or forum to finalize the following unique and entire world Global developing idea for its further implementations in the current ongoing and next coming future Hydro projects as soon as possible.


    with best regards.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar