@ Polyspace...many thanks for that. There's a big uproar here in Australia at the moment as Coal-Seam Gas (CSG) miners are running rampant all over our best farming land. However I have never heard of them extracting helium from it. Maybe because, as other posters have said, the price is artificially low. If someone as big (and supposedly savvy) as the US government can't sort this out, what hope is there?
@ David "Seriously though, where does the Helium come from?"
Helium is a byproduct of the gas/oil industry. Radioactive decay of certain isotopes in the crust produce Alpha particles which bounce around a bit until they slow down and grab a couple electrons, thus becoming Helium atoms. They tend to rise up and are trapped in pockets of natural gas.
As a child I wondered for years about 'secret fusion reactors' since we're all told that helium comes from fusing hydrogen, but no one ever knew where Earth's helium supply came from.
David - A few years ago, I read that helium is the only element that, if left to its own devices, will escape the atmosphere. The other light gases will combine with something and end up too heavy to do the same.
I'm not sure how it would work though. Even being a very light element, I would think that it would just collect at some high altitude rather than bleed off into space.
This is a good, quick read from Popular Mechanics that says much of the same thing: articially low prices, an attempt at privatization of storage but private industry not interested. Seems like the low price at which the Federal govt. sells helium could be an enticement for industry to buy it at a low price, stockpile, and sell it at high price. Easier said than done.
I agree whole heartedly with your idea of not allowing it's use in party balloons.
Fossil fuels however are part of a cycle. What will happen is long after we have fought our way into extinction plant life will eventually capture and store CO2 in fossil reserves so that in a million years we can find our way back into the mess we are now yet again.
It is almost unique in its non-renewability. If we mine, say, titanium or gold or phosophorus and use it, we might degrade the resource but the atoms remain here on earth. When we use helium, in contrast, if we don't deliberately recapture it and have it recycled, it leaks into the atmosphere and escapes into space. Fossil fuels share a similar "one and done" situation, but in their case, there are renewable alternatives. For many if not most applications for helium, there is no obvious or viable alternative.
All non-critical uses of helium should be banned immediately.
There was a good article in the Washington Post last year on this problem. In 1996 the congress decided to get rid on the federal Helium reserve that was created (at an expense of $1.4 billion) in the 1960s. The problem was that they priced the Helium at about half what it was worth. That is why we can still use it for party ballons. I guess the hope was that by now the private sector would have stepped into the breach that the government was creating by ending the reserve. But that hasn't happened, perhaps because if congress changes their mind (again) and continues to sell it below cost then private industry could not make a profit. And so it goes...........
Wikipedia has a good run down on it, most comes from the US as a byproduct of gas mining. It is however finite and shouldn't be used in helium balloons at parties. I think something like 10 years worth is left on current usage.