Is Headline CPI Inflation “Fake News”?

On Wednesday this week, some of you may have watched a man fly without a plane or hang glider. David Blaine, the illusionist and endurance artist, soared over the Arizona desert by holding onto 50 giant helium balloons. The stunt, called “Ascension,” lasted about an hour, during which Blaine reached a maximum altitude of 24,900 feet, or about 4.7 miles, before parachuting back to earth.

What made his flight possible, of course, was helium, the lighter-than-air stuff that makes your voice sound like Mickey Mouse’s.

Many people may not be aware that the gas is used for much more than filling birthday balloons. It plays a critical role in a number of high-tech applications, from barcode readers to semiconductors to liquid-crystal display (LCD) panels. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines can’t work without it. Google, Netflix and Amazon have been buying massive quantities of it for their data centers.

So why am I talking about helium this week and not gold or oil or copper? Like those other raw materials, helium is an important but finite resource that must be extracted from the ground. In fact, it’s exclusively a byproduct of natural gas mining.

Also like gold, new large helium deposits are becoming fewer and farther between, even though we’ve only known about the element since 1868, a little over 150 years ago. We’ve only been mining it in earnest since 1915, when the U.S. Army built the first helium extraction plant at the Petrolia Oilfield in North Texas.

As a result, supply is getting tight. Helium is notoriously difficult and expensive to store, for the very good reason that it escapes every known container over time. Ever wondered why balloons lose their helium so fast? It’s because the gas’s atomic radius is so small, it can literally diffuse through any solid. Much of it floats up into the upper atmosphere and eventually gets torn away by the solar wind. Helium is the second-most abundant element in the universe, and yet the day is fast approaching when it may no longer exist on Earth.

Did you know the U.S. has a National Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas? Despite the plant having the capacity to hold over 1 billion cubic meters, its reserves are projected to be depleted within two years, according to Desert Mountain Energy, a North American explorer of the gas.