In the past, helium used in America was sourced much closer to home. “More than 90 percent of the world’s helium supply used to come from the U.S.,” says Kornbluth. There was also a large backup supply at the Federal Helium Reserve—an underground storage facility located near Amarillo, Texas.
The U.S. government began collecting large amounts of helium for military use and space exploration in the 1960s. But by the 1990s, massive stockpiling of helium seemed like an unnecessary expense. So Congress passed a bill requiring the Federal Helium Reserve to sell off its helium by 2021. Today, the reserve contains about 170 million cubic meters (6 billion cubic feet) of helium, compared with more than 850 million cubic meters (30 billion cubic feet) it held a few decades ago. The reserve still sells helium. But the supply is going fast.
“We’re phasing out so private companies can take the lead,” says Samuel Burton, a manager at the Federal Helium Reserve. Several businesses are looking into extracting helium in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. In the meantime, though, there’s concern there won’t be enough of the precious gas to go around. Rising prices are already affecting science labs, hospitals, and technology companies that depend on helium. It’s even made blowing up balloons more expensive!
But don’t worry. Kornbluth predicts the shortage will end by 2021, or sooner. “With a number of new projects in the works,” he says, “helium availability will improve fairly soon.”