Helium shortage forces changes to balloon race

Mike Krumboltz

The global helium shortage is having a real-world effect. For the first time since the race began in 1995, participants in the America's Challenge Gas Balloon Race in Albuquerque, N.M., are having to use hydrogen instead of helium.

The switch, according to KOAT.com, is largely due to economics. Even if the racers could get their hands on the tightly controlled helium, it has become so expensive that few can afford it. KOAT reports that it would cost around $12,000 to fill a racing balloon with helium, but only about $1,000 with hydrogen. The switch to hydrogen means that some racers with helium-only balloons won't be able to participate in the contest.

The reasons behind the helium shortage are a bit convoluted. A video essay from Time explains the basics. Helium is actually the second most abundant element in the universe (after hydrogen), but because helium is so light and doesn't bond to other elements, it tends to float up, up and away. The helium that earth does hold on to is trapped in natural gas deposits. With helium demand up in medical equipment and other high-tech industries, the stockpile is dwindling.

Around 30 percent of the world's helium supply comes from the Federal Helium Reserve in Texas. A blog from Popular Mechanics puts it like this:

Between 10 and 12 billion cubic feet of recoverable helium are expected to remain in the reservoir by the end of 2014, Walter Nelson, director of helium sourcing for Air Products and Chemicals Inc., told the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in May. "At current production rates of about 2 billion cubic feet per year, the reservoir could continue to produce helium for five to six more years."

Bottom line: Your days of talking like a chipmunk may be a thing of the past.