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Back in the 1920s, the U.S. government thought blimps might be the next big thing in warfare. So the government started producing helium. And they created the Federal Helium Reserve, a vast store of helium that sits underground in the Texas panhandle.
The great blimp war never came to pass, but the reserve persisted. Now, the government is in the process of selling off the most of that helium and winding down the reserve. Weirdly, selling off all that helium has actually led to a big rise in the price of the gas.
This is a bigger deal than it might seem. Besides playing an essential role at birthday parties, helium is used to make cell phones, computers, plasma TVs — anything with a chip.
There is a private helium industry. But private producers are wary of expanding their business at a moment when the government is selling off its stockpile. These days, the government is selling enough helium to keep some private companies on the sidelines, but not enough to drive prices down.
At some point, the price of helium will rise enough to make it worthwhile for private companies to start producing more. This, in turn, should make prices stabilize.
But for now, companies that use helium are stuck, whether they're big global manufacturers making computer chips, or party planners buying balloons.