Helium is an essential material for research and medical equipment, but it’s nonrenewable and difficult to recycle

The next time you pick up balloons for your big party, remember the helium gas in those balloons is destined for the stars. Helium is so light that it easily escapes Earth’s gravity, and all helium will eventually make its way into space. Like fossil fuels, helium is a limited resource.

Helium shortages have become an acute problem for many researchers. Since early 2022, a variety of factors have put pressure on the global helium market, including the potential sale of the U.S.’s publicly held helium reserves and production infrastructure, sanctions against Russia and a series of breakdowns at helium plants.

Four helium shortages have occurred over the past decade, and these disruptions affect several high-tech industries. Beyond inflating balloons, helium plays a part in welding for certain metals and in making semiconductors.

Medical imaging and chemical analysis research also use helium. Liquid helium cooled to minus-450 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-268 degrees Celsius) keeps the superconducting magnets in instruments like magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, and nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, systems cool.

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