No Longer Up In The Air

August 24, 2019

If gases held a popularity contest, helium would undoubtedly be the winner. Why? Because it can literally be the life of the party! Helium is the gas used to fill balloons, but there’s a little problem with helium: We’re running out of it! Earlier this year, Party City announced that it was closing many of its stores due in part to a helium shortage that makes it hard to sell balloon products. Wait … what?

Let’s dig in. Helium is an element that is actually lighter than air, so it’s perfect for use in balloons. But that’s just one use. In liquid form, helium is one of the coldest substances—almost as cold as space—which makes it perfect for cooling machinery and tools, a task that could otherwise cost a lot of money and effort.

But where does helium come from and why can’t we make more of it? Well, helium is actually found in very few places on earth; it most commonly exists under rock formations. Since it is so light, much of the world’s helium quickly escapes and can be rather tricky to store. The United States is one of only three reliable places to find helium, and the supply is expected to dwindle in the next few years. Until we figure out new places to get helium (space, perhaps?), scientists are looking for ways to reduce, recycle, and reuse.