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Not just Party City: Why helium shortages worry scientists and researchers

“Helium is the workhorse of chemistry. Because of a helium shortage, some important experiments are being forced to shut down," one physicist said.
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This month’s announcement from Party City that it’s closing more than 40 stores as it grapples with new challenges, including diminishing helium supplies, likely came as unwelcome news to customers who count on the store for their balloon and event planning needs.

But for scientists like Mark Elsesser, the announcement was something of a relief, inflating hopes that the public, and the government, might start paying closer attention.

“When it comes to helium, we’re at a tipping point,” said Elsesser, who is the associate director of government affairs at the American Physical Society, a nonprofit association of physicists. “Party City has made our job a little bit easier when it comes to getting helium on people’s radar. Helium is something we need to address.”

Elsesser said news coverage related to Party City's difficulties in sourcing helium cast a long-overdue spotlight on an element that’s often overlooked and underestimated.

Yes, helium is known for making you sound like a chipmunk and filling your balloons. But the lighter-than-air element has far weightier uses.

“Helium is used in MRIs, it’s used in nuclear magnetic resonance, and the semiconductor industry uses a lot of helium,” Elsesser said.

“Helium is the workhorse of chemistry. Because of a helium shortage, some important experiments are being forced to shut down. The development of some drugs is being impacted. We’re losing time in research efforts.”

Liquid helium is like liquid gold to scientists, according to Sophia Hayes, a professor of chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis and one of the nation’s leading helium experts.

“It’s the coldest substance in the world,” Hayes said, explaining it plummets to minus 450 degrees Fahrenheit. “It’s almost as cold as outer space. There is no substitute. There is nothing else that can create those low temperatures.”

Scientists have been issuing warnings for years about the world’s shrinking helium supply. This year, the American Physical Society said that addressing the helium crisis is one of its top priorities.

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Even fictitious scientists, like the ones featured on the popular sitcom, "The Big Bang Theory," have devoted entire episodes to the search for the gas. In an episode that aired in October 2015, entitled “The Helium Insufficiency,” two of the show’s main characters, Leonard and Sheldon, resort to shady dealings in a dark alley to source helium for an experiment.

But while the characters have been well aware of the helium shortage, it’s taken a while for the public and government officials to catch up.

“The helium shortage has hit us really hard,” Hayes said. “The situation is urgent.”

Hayes is among the nation's scientists who rely upon helium to keep their super-conducting magnets in operating condition.

Image: Federal Helium Reserve
Deward Cawthon, plant operator at the Federal Helium Reserve, walks through the Federal Crude Helium Enrichment Unit near Amarillo, Texas, on July 6, 2011. (Joyce Marshall/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images)Joyce Marshall / Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images file

The types of magnets Hayes uses for research typically range in cost from a few hundred thousand dollars to a million dollars. Hayes said the magnets could be irreparably damaged if she didn't regularly bathe them in liquid helium.

In addition to being used as a cooling fluid for superconducting magnets, which are in turn used for experiments related to the development of pharmaceutical drugs, helium is also used by NASA to separate fuels in rockets and by the Defense Department to create cutting edge tools, including radiation-detecting sensors.

The problem is there’s not enough helium to go around.

Although helium is the second most prevalent element in the universe, most of it dissipates into the earth’s atmosphere. The fields of it that have been located around the world are tricky to trap and to store. Because it’s so light, it typically escapes. There are only a few locations in the world that are considered reliable sources of helium: the United States, Qatar and Algeria.

“Helium is made in a natural process involving radioactive decay,” Hayes said.

It’s typically trapped in rock formations and is extracted as a byproduct of natural gas.

The biggest source of helium in the United States, the Federal Helium Reserve, in Amarillo, Texas, is winding down its operations after Congress passed laws in 1996 to take the U.S. government out of the helium business. It’s given the reserve until Sept. 30, 2021, to sell the reserve’s remaining helium stores in a series of auctions. Many researchers worry about where their helium will come from after the reserve, believed to account for as much as 40 percent of the U.S.’s helium supply, closes.

The short supply has caused helium prices to soar in recent years, from $5 per liter a decade ago to $100 a liter today.

Those rising prices are throwing monkey wrenches into experiments and research labs.

“We’re already at the point that universities are making decisions about what faculty to hire based on helium,” Elsesser said. “If the faculty members’ research depends on helium, university departments are shying away from hiring those people because helium is too expensive. We’re losing large swaths of research critical to the United States.”

Image: Rubber ball, frozen to near absolute zer
Rubber ball, frozen to near absolute zero by liquid helium, shatters and vaporizes as it strikes floor on Sept. 01, 1948Al Fenn / The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images file

Hayes said she’s in an international network of scientists that regularly exchange emails about helium supplies.

The messages serve as an early warning system for when and where supplies are running low. “Someone will say, ‘Hey, we’re not getting any helium in Chicago’ and other messages will follow. We try to help one another,” Hayes said.

Scientists said they were heartened when the Trump administration included helium in its declaration of critical minerals issued in the spring of 2018. The executive order directed federal agencies to collaborate to safeguard America’s access to helium.

The administration indicated at the time that a plan of action for helium would be issued as soon as last summer, but nearly a year later, the scientific community is still waiting.

NBC News reached out to the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which said the plan is expected to be made public “within the next few weeks.” According to an official with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the report will include “recommendations to increase domestic production and reduce, reuse, recycle or substitute supplies when technologically feasible.”

Elsesser is among those scientists who hope the government will look into new programs that focus on helium recycling and upgrading equipment so that helium can be recaptured and reliquified.

In the meantime, the world continues to look for new helium fields. There are reports of a new helium field in Tanzania. And Hayes said Russia hopes to be a supplier of helium by 2021.

An additional source of helium might also exist in space.

“There’s potentially helium on the moon,” Elsesser said. “But if you think that helium is expensive now, what do you think that it will cost if you bring it back from the moon?”