Will We Run Out of Helium?

Is helium a renewable resource?

Although helium is common in the universe, it's rare on Earth and becoming increasingly expensive to isolate.
Although helium is common in the universe, it's rare on Earth and becoming increasingly expensive to isolate. Joe Drivas / Getty Images

Helium is the second-lightest element. Although it is rare on Earth, you likely have encountered it in helium-filled balloons. It's the most widely-used of the inert gases, used in arc welding, diving, growing silicon crystals, and as a coolant in MRI scanners.

In addition to being rare, helium is a (mostly) non-renewable resource. The helium that we have was produced by the radioactive decay of rock, long ago. Over the span of hundreds of millions of years, the gas accumulated and was released by tectonic plate movement, where it found its way into natural gas deposits and as a dissolved gas in groundwater. Once the gas leaks into the atmosphere, it's light enough to escape the Earth's gravitational field so it bleeds off into space, never to return. We may run out of helium within 25-30 years because it's being consumed so freely.

Why We Could Run Out of Helium

Why would such a valuable resource be squandered? Basically it's because the price of helium does not reflect its value. Most of the world's supply of helium is held by the US National Helium Reserve, which was mandated to sell off all of its stockpile by 2015, regardless of price. This was based on a 1966 law, the Helium Privatization Act, which was intended to help the government recoup the cost of building up the reserve. Though the uses of helium multiplied, the law had not been revisited, so by 2015 much of the planet's stockpile of helium was sold at an extremely low price.

As of 2016, the US Congress did re-examine the law, ultimately passing a bill maintaining the helium reserves.

There's More Helium Than We Once Thought

Recent research indicates there's more helium, particularly in groundwater, than scientists previously estimated. Also, although the process is extremely slow, ongoing radioactive decay of natural uranium and other radioisotopes does generate additional helium. That's the good news. The bad news is it's going to require more money and new technology to recover the element. The other bad news is there isn't going to be helium that we can get from the planets near us because they also exert too little gravity to hold the gas. Perhaps at some point, we may find a way to "mine" the element from gas giants further out in the solar system.

Why We Aren't Running Out of Hydrogen

If helium is so lightweight that it escapes Earth's gravity, you may be wondering about hydrogen. Even though hydrogen forms chemical bonds with itself to make H2 gas, it's still lighter than even one helium atom. The reason is because hydrogen forms bonds with other atoms besides itself. The element is bound into water molecules and organic compounds. Helium, on the other hand, is a noble gas with stable electron shell structure. Since it doesn't form chemical bonds, it isn't preserved in compounds.