Helium, the gas that inflates party balloons and makes voices around the world high-pitched, is actually one of the most important resources in science. According to The Harvard Gazette, 16 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to work requiring liquid helium. And for the fourth time since 2006, the world is facing a significant helium shortage.
The irony of this shortage is that helium is believed to make up 28% of all atom formations in the universe, behind only hydrogen in its abundance. But on Earth, it's a rare resource with a finite supply.
With an atomic number of two on the periodic table, helium’s melting point is the lowest of all the known elements, it has a boiling point of -268.9 °C, and will only solidify under extreme pressure. Due to these properties, it has become vital for medicine, scientific research, arc welding, refrigeration, aircraft, coolant for nuclear reactors, cryogenic research, detecting gas leaks, and even pressurising spacecraft.
What triggered the current helium shortage was a perfect storm of events combining a global logistics crisis with multiple producer shutdowns, a leak at the U.S. helium reserve in Texas and an explosion at a major Russian facility. It’s gotten to the point where some labs are reporting suppliers are only able to allocate 45% of their orders.
Philip Kim, Harvard Professor of physics and applied physics, has said the current helium shortage could even delay the graduation of students, who are unable to complete their experiments.
But as Winston Churchill once said, ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’. There are a number of publicly listed companies that focus on drilling for helium, like Blue Star Helium (ASX: BNL | OTCMRKT: BSNLF), Noble Helium (ASX: NHE) and Air Products & Chemicals Inc (NYSE: APD) to name a few.