The 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.