Though it's the second most abundant element in the universe, helium is hard to come by on Earth. In the United States, a long-held "strategic reserve" of helium is being eliminated, with all but 2,900 tons of the gas slated to be sold by 2015.
In 2006, approximately 170 million cubic meters of helium were extracted from natural gas or withdrawn from helium reserves worldwide. That gas was used for everything from cooling the superconducting magnets inside MRI machines, to inflating party balloons. But a worldwide shortage of helium has prices on the rise. Some party goods stores are even limiting sales of balloons due to the shortage.
Purified helium is mostly extracted from natural gas — it makes up about 7 percent of natural gas extracted from the ground. Only a few plants worldwide perform the fractional distillation processes needed to separate the helium from other gases and purify it, but worldwide demand continues to grow. Several helium production plants are currently shut down for maintenance. Equipment failures and bad weather have hampered others.
Phil Kornbluth, executive vice president, Matheson Tri-Gas Global Helium, Basking Ridge, N.J.