The Weird Story Of Why Helium Prices Are Going Through The Roof | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

The Weird Story Of Why Helium Prices Are Going Through The Roof

Play associated audio

For More: Pork, Helium, Maple Syrup: Our Favorite Strategic Reserves

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.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

How'd A Cartoonist Sell His First Drawing? It Only Took 610 Tries

Tom Toro was a directionless 20-something film school dropout. Then, after an inspired moment at a used book sale, he started submitting drawings to The New Yorker ... and collecting rejection slips.
NPR

Will Environmentalists Fall For Faux Fish Made From Plants?

A handful of chefs and food companies are experimenting with fish-like alternatives to seafood. But the market is still a few steps behind plant-based products for meat and dairy.
NPR

Will We See Veto Battles On Capitol Hill?

With President Obama promising to vetoes, what are the possibilities of a few veto overrides during the next two years? NPR's Arun Rath puts that questions to the National Journal's Fawn Johnson.
NPR

3 Voices, 1 Threat: Personal Stories Of Cyberhacking

In President Obama's State of the Union address, he gave fresh emphasis to a problem that has been in the headlines: cybersecurity. Here are three people who have experienced security breaches.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.