I guess we have all heard about the worldwide shortage of Helium in recent months. It is not a rumor, it is very true.
The largest reserve of helium historically has been held by the U.S. Government. In 1996 the government decided to get out of the Helium business and the 1996 Helium Privatization Act was born. It implemented a pecking order for the sale of Helium. Government requirements such a defense (etc.) were served first then programs such as NASA were in line for their share, and so it went.
Approximately 20% of the worldwide requirements for Helium is to super cool magnets in MRI machines, another 17% is used in Laser Cutting applications. The list of applications goes on and on and at the lower end of the feeding chain is the balloon vendor with a consumption of about 8%. If you haven't purchased a balloon lately prepare for some sticker shock!
Helium is mined from the ground and is captured during the extraction process of Natural Gas. Helium accounts for approximately 7% of the Natural Gas extraction process. If the Helium is not captured during this process it is simply lost to our atmosphere and off into space. Our demand worldwide is growing at a rate far greater than our production of this product.
There are a limited number of plants globally that are performing the fractional distillation process needed to separate the Helium from other gases and then purifying it. In addition some plants are shut down for maintenance, some have equipment failures and still others have been hit hard by weather related events.
All said, we are in a bad way concerning our global supply of Helium. Prices will continue to climb as the supply and demand scale is way out of balance. Availability will become more crucial than price and hard decisions will have to be made as to who the supply will feed.
For those of you using Helium where Hydrogen could be used, like in GC applications, please consider a switch to Hydrogen. If having Hydrogen on site scares you, consider a Hydrogen generator. (Generators are available at Middlesex Gases & Technologies for a number of various gases) We all need to "Think Helium" and know that within 8-10 years, under current circumstances, there will be no more supply.
I know this is a grim forecast but like Helium, try to "lighten up".