The world’s supply of helium gas is running out and prices may be about to sky rocket.

But what might just sound like the death knell for balloon animals, could in fact be a lot more serious.

What will become of this ancient art?
What will become of this ancient art?

What will become of this ancient art?

The US holds over 80 per cent of the world’s helium supply. It began stockpiling the gas in the 1920s for military use after Germany unveiled its infamous airship, the Zeppelin.

In the years that followed interest in helium waned, leaving the US Bureau of Mines in debt to the tune of $1.3 billion dollars. In order to get back in the black, they’ve been selling off their helium at a bargain-basement price ever since.

With the Bureau set to pay off its debt later this year, this could put an end to helium’s falsely created low price – potentially seeing helium prices jump tenfold and creating a global market shortage.

The bad news (apart from the impact on children’s birthday parties) is that this could make some medical research prohibitively expensive. Among other things, helium is needed for MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and MEG (Magnetoencephalography) machines.

To tackle this challenge, we’ve joined forces with Sydney’s Macquarie University in a new on-site facility that recovers and recycles helium used in brain imaging devices. In fact, the new system will allow over 90 per cent of helium to be captured and recycled.

The liquid helium recovery system is an initiative of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders. Read more about it here.

3 comments

  1. I take some exception to your headline “The world’s supply of helium gas is running out” and suggest your readers might consider http://www.metts.com.au/lng-carbon-footprints-cdm.html for a more complete assessment of the situation including Australia’s role in the production of He.

  2. Maybe the CSIRO should re-examine the economics of extracting helium from Australian natural gas. The technology should be relatively simple, given the very high permeability for helium of many different materials. Thus a large area, mesh-supported membrane in a holding tank in series with a natural gas pipeline should do the trick. In the past this didn’t make economic sense because of the vast and cheap supplies from the USA. The excuse was always that American gas and oil wells contain much larger proportions of helium. Maybe this is no longer valid?

  3. When I was a UWA student in the ’80s we were already recycling helium from experiments. Captured in an inflatable bag that covered the ceiling, then chilled to 77K to condense N2 and O2, then re-compressed into a storage cylinder. Professors Figgis and Kepert were already warning about helium as a finite resource. Like so many of our finite resources, it’s squandered when the market price is (falsely) low. I can barely walk past someone giving out helium-filled baloons without stopping to lecture them on this. Needless to say, it makes me very unpopular at childrens’ parties and fetes.

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