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The fate of America’s largest supply of helium is up in the air

The Federal Helium Reserve was supposed to be sold off in 2021. Scientists hope it will remain in government hands.
A plant operator at the Federal Helium Reserve walks through the Federal Crude Helium Enrichment Unit near Amarillo, Texas, on July 6, 2011.
The Federal Helium Reserve comprises nearly 500 miles of pipeline — stretching from Amarillo, Texas, to the panhandle of Oklahoma to Kansas. Joyce Marshall / Tribune News Service via Getty Images file

For more than a year, the fate of the Federal Helium Reserve, one of the world’s largest and most dependable suppliers of helium, has been uncertain. 

The mammoth underground structure is comprised of nearly 500 miles of pipeline — stretching from Amarillo, Texas, to the panhandle of Oklahoma to Kansas — and supplies roughly 40% of the world’s helium. 

“It was supposed to be sold off by 2021,” said Sophia Hayes, a professor of chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis and one of the nation’s leading helium experts. “But for the past year, it’s been silent.” 

For the better part of a decade, scientists like Hayes have urged government officials to hold on to the reserve, instead of selling it to a private entity — likely a major industrial gas or pipeline company, and possibly one that is foreign-owned. They say that the decision Congress made in 1996 to set into motion a 25-year plan to unload the reserve, in a bid to shrink government, was shortsighted and potentially detrimental to a host of industries, ranging from medical technology to rocket science.

Last week, a government-issued helium bulletin inflated their hopes that the United States may be thinking harder about helium.

On Jan. 30, a notice was posted to the Federal Register by the U.S. Geological Survey seeking public comments regarding “whether there is an increasing risk of helium-supply disruption.” 

At first glance, the notice may not seem like much. 

But Hayes and several other scientists whom NBC News spoke with say it is one more sign the federal government is paying close attention to an increasingly volatile helium market, and potentially rethinking the terms and timing of the sale of the reserve. 

“Every delay, every pause in the sale, every discussion about the value of helium gives us hope that maybe someone is paying attention,” Hayes said.

To the average consumer, helium is not a particularly important matter. For most, it’s best known as the lighter-than-air gas that gives flight to party balloons and, when inhaled, makes people sound like chipmunks. 

But liquid helium is liquid gold to a host of industries, according to Bill Halperin, a professor of physics at Northwestern University, who uses helium for low-temperature physics and to provide a liquid bath for superconducting magnets used for nuclear magnetic resonance.

“Helium is a nonrenewable resource. NASA and SpaceX need helium for liquid fuel rockets,” he said. “The MRI industry needs helium. The pharmaceutical industry is reliant on helium. And so is the Department of Defense.” 

Halperin notes that the Defense Department uses helium not only for missiles, but also for surveillance balloons

“It’s very important to have observation status which doesn’t compromise human life. And balloons provide that. In Afghanistan and Iraq, helium balloons were used to monitor activity.”

It’s widely believed that the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon, shot down by the U.S. military on Saturday after passing over the northern U.S. earlier in the week, was a helium balloon. 

Scientists estimate that, at the current rate of global consumption, there is a supply of helium for 100-200 more years. There are only a handful of significant sources of helium in the world — the U.S., Qatar, Algeria and Russia, chief among them. But due to geopolitical situations elsewhere in the world, the U.S. supply is considered the most reliable.

Established in the 1920s for what was then a burgeoning blimp industry, the Federal Helium Reserve quickly became the go-to for scores of scientists and private companies when it came to sourcing reliable helium. 

The value of the reserve, Hayes said, also extends to the unique and natural formation in which the helium is stored. The dolomite structure, a massive cave-like formation situated beneath two layers of salt that act as a cap, enables the reserve to do what virtually no other known place in the world can do: store helium long term. 

“Helium can pretty much escape through any above-ground container,” she said. “We make steel containers to hold helium, but some of it always leaks out, despite our best efforts. So in order to preserve and contain helium long term, we need places like the reserve, which are impermeable.” 

While scientists are finding new ways to recycle helium, finding storage facilities to hold the  helium that are both impermeable and that are equipped with machinery with which to remove and refine helium on an on-demand basis — as the Federal Helium Reserve does — is no easy task. 

“For the last century, we’re the only ones who have had a container like this one for helium,” Hayes said. “It makes no sense to sell off this infrastructure.” 

The original terms of the legislation enacted to sell off the Federal Helium Reserve set a deadline to sell by Sept. 30, 2021. 

But the Bureau of Land Management delayed the sale and turned the assets of the Federal Helium Reserve over to the General Services Administration, which scheduled an auction for last year. That sale has yet to materialize. 

NBC News reached out to both the BLM and the GSA for comment on the status of the sale of the Federal Helium Reserve. The former referred all questions to the latter, which did not respond to the inquiries.

Halperin is among those concerned about what will happen if the government sells the Federal Helium Reserve to a private entity, and to what it could mean for not only scientific advancements, but also for consumers.

“Helium shortages have already impacted MRIs,” he said. “If hospitals don’t have access to helium for MRI machines, patients may not have access to MRIs or could have to pay additional fees, which could be extraordinary.”

The U.S. is experiencing the fourth in a series of helium shortages since 2006, according to helium consultant Phil Kornbluth.

“The world has experienced eight years of helium shortage in the last 17. It’s been a pretty unreliable supply chain,” he said, noting war in Ukraine has indefinitely disrupted Russia’s supply of helium to the global marketplace. “The prices of helium in many cases have doubled since January 2022. Contract prices have increased 50 to 100%, in some cases, even more.” 

Kornbluth said selling the reserve now may create further price hikes.  

“I would definitely be in favor of putting the sale of the Federal Helium Reserve on at least a temporary hold,” he said. “The world’s supply of helium right now is pretty fragile. We’re in a shortage.” 

But exactly how long the sale of the Federal Helium Reserve can be delayed — or whether the sale of the reserve can potentially be stopped permanently — is complicated. 

“I think there’s a lot of questions about who’s got what authority to do what,” said Mark Elsesser, director of government affairs for the American Physical Society, the largest physics membership group in the nation. He has been communicating with government agencies for years about the merits of helium and as recently as last month met with government officials to discuss the reserve. 

“It was an act of Congress that said this thing was going to be sold, so I believe it will take an act of Congress to say this won’t be sold.”

While Elsesser said, in a perfect world scenario, he’d like to see the reserve remain in federal hands, he realizes it may be more realistic to focus on setting specific terms related to any eventual sale. 

 “For me, the real concern I have with the federal government selling the reserve is that the federal government will no longer have control at all over this irreplaceable, nonrenewable, critical natural resource,” he said. “Whoever the reserve is sold to, at that point, the federal government is solely negotiating with private companies on purchasing helium, whether it’s available or not. At the point of sale, the federal government is totally out of the helium game.”