Hold On To That Balloon, Kid
The next time you take a drag off a party balloon to amuse your friends with your impression of Alvin and the Chipmunks, consider this: Your squeaky-voiced antics will be sending some of Earth's few remaining molecules of helium irretrievably into the vastness of space.
At present rates of consumption, the world's supply of helium could be exhausted in three decades. "Once it is released into the atmosphere, it is lost to the earth forever," Nobel physicist Robert C. Richardson explained in a recent lecture. The world may be able to survive without Mylar party favors (which, if Richardson had his way, would cost $100 each), but helium is essential to many less-frivolous products: MRI machines, liquid-fueled rockets, microchips, and fiber-optic cables. Scientists are already complaining that helium shortages are delaying research and driving up cost.
The bulk of the world's dwindling supply, 1 billion cubic meters, currently rests in the underground Federal Helium Reserve near Amarillo, Texas, created in 1925 and maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. In 1996 Congress decided to liquidate the reserve by requiring that its contents be sold off by 2015. That decision artificially lowered the price of the gas. This, combined with skyrocketing helium use by China and India, has led to the rapid disappearance of an element that it took 4.5 billion years of radioactive decay to produce. Scientists say there's no cost-effective way to synthesize helium or reclaim it from the atmosphere. Once it's gone, there will be an empty place-setting on the periodic table--an ignoble fate for a noble gas.