Next to hydrogen, helium is the most abundant atomic element in the universe. But while there is plenty of hydrogen on Earth, helium is much rarer across our planet. That has become a concern, as known reserves are rapidly running dry. Consequently, the price of this gas has shot through the roof from $58 per 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 a host of important industrial applications, ranging from coolants in super-conducting magnets, welding, leak detection, and lasers.
A Predicted Problem
This is not the first time people have worried about the waning reserves of this vital gas. 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. Thus, what is occurring now was predicted more than 20 years ago.
The source of the problem appears, in part, to be the obscure Helium Act of 1925, which mandated the US government to start accumulating the noble gas at the National Helium Reserve, which played a strategic role during the Cold War. This pushed the market price up to an artificially high level. By 1995, the Cliffside Storage Facility in Amarillo, TX, stored one billion cubic meters of helium. Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act in 1996 with instructions to sell the gas by 2005, thereby flooding the market with decades of accumulated storage.
Following the laws of supply and demand, the price of helium was pushed down and discouraged any new investment in mining and capture. Now, however, that the price is rising again, the commodity is a hot investment object. If the shortage persists, expect to see new mines open.
Mining on the Moon
One place that has an abundance of a rare version of helium called the Helium-3 isotope is the moon. Unlike ordinary helium, Helium-3 can be used for a range of unique physical applications. The most important one that may end up justifying mining of the moon for the substance is nuclear power.
If we manage to tame the process of fusion, Helium-3 is an excellent fuel. It may become crucial to the endeavor of industrializing and even populating space. At some point, it could be commercially viable to transport this rare commodity from the moon to Earth, but it would probably make more sense to use it for energy-intensive construction on the moon.
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.
While we wait for these new possibilities of the future to arise, we need to mine our own planet. 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.