One of the most abundant elements in the universe is getting harder to come by.
Helium goes into a lot more than balloons. Because the gas is inert and has extreme melting and boiling points—both near absolute zero—scientists use it in cryogenics, high-energy accelerators, arc welding, and silicon wafer manufacturing. A severe reduction in the availability of helium could force hospitals to replace costly MRI magnets or restrict patient access to them.
The federal government, which sets helium prices, announced in April that helium prices would spike from $75.75 per thousand cubic feet (Mcf) in FY 2012 to $84 per Mcf in FY 2013. (Last year, prices rose only 75 cents.) This price spike, along with uncertain federal policy (and a peculiar industry setup to begin with), is threatening to create a shortage. Here’s what’s going on.