Next to hydrogen, helium is the most common element in the universe. But while there is plenty of hydrogen on Earth, helium is much rarer across our planet. That has become a problem, as known reserves are running dry. So, the price of this gas has gone from $58 a tank to more than $250 in five years.
That may not sound like much of a problem to most; who needs those helium balloons, anyway? The fact is that this gas is used for many important industrial applications, from coolants in super-conducting magnets, welding, leak detection, and lasers.
A Predicted Problem
In 2007, Resilience.org claimed that “if new sources of helium aren’t developed, the world’s supply of the gas will dwindle and prices will soar.”
The site also reported that many, including the American Physical Society, had been warning for a decade about a severe shortage of the gas. What is happening now was predicted more than 20 years ago.
The Helium Act of 1925 required the US government to start collecting and storing the gas at the National Helium Reserve. This pushed the market price up to an artificially high level. But Congress then passed the Helium Privatization Act in 1996 with instructions to sell the gas by 2005, which flooded the market with decades worth of stored helium.
Following the laws of supply and demand, the price of helium was pushed down and discouraged any new investment in mining and capture. Now that the price is rising again, the commodity is a hot investment object. If the shortage continues, expect to see new mines open.
Mining On The Moon
The moon has a lot of Helium – and not just regular Helium, but a rare form called the Helium-3 isotope. If we can master nuclear fusion, Helium-3 would be a great fuel that would make an amazing amount of energy – it might even help industrialize and populate space.
If, for instance, a new space station were to be constructed, the weak gravity of the moon, combined with plenty of raw materials and energy, would make it a natural location for a fabrication hub.
Until then, however, the United States is both the largest producer and consumer of helium, and it will, therefore, be the global center of near-term mining and exploration.
The helium shortage teaches us a valuable lesson of how government interference in the market may disrupt investment in the future. Hopefully, a free market will fix the problem as it has done so many times in the past.