Countries like Qatar extract so much natural gas that they have so little helium that they can meet a decent percentage of global demand. Not all natural gas deposits contain helium gas and it makes no financial sense for companies to refine their by-products into helium, so we will end up with a tiny group of important suppliers. As in most recent years, the price of helium has risen and fallen because natural gas companies are incentivized to sell the helium produced on their own.

New and expanding LNG plants to produce helium products are expected to go into operation in Qatar and Algeria later this year, contributing to a supply that is likely to exceed rising demand, Reilly said. More ambitious capitalists are also taking notice, and natural gas supply chains are trying to integrate helium extraction from large-scale projects into their processes.

Experts warn that the world could run out of helium in 25 to 30 years, which could spell disaster for hospitals with magnetic resonance imaging machines that cool the gas in liquid form, anti-terrorist agencies relying on helium for their radiation monitors and millions of children who love to see their helium-filled balloons floating in the sky. According to a report by Edison Investment Research, falling production at the Hugoton gas field in Kansas, a major source of helium, and the Federal Reserve’s exhaustion of helium have decreased the global supply. Combine that with the fact that much of the world’s helium is extracted from natural gas and you have a perfect storm for a shortfall.

Helium is produced on this planet by the deep, natural radioactive decay of elements such as uranium and thorium. It occurs when radioactive elements in gases enter the same deposits as natural gas. Helium seeps into the earth’s crust and gets trapped in natural gas pockets from which it can be extracted.

Most of the helium extracted from the natural gas is believed to be in the form of radioactive decay of uranium and thorium into the granite rocks of the earth’s crust.

Since helium accumulates in natural gas, it makes little economic sense to extract it because it is difficult to store. It costs 10,000 times more to extract helium from the air than from rock or natural gas reserves. Helium is the second most abundant gas in the universe and is only about a second faster than light making it easy to slip into Earth’s atmosphere.

Helium sold today is a by-product of the natural gas industry, produced from rock formations that capture hydrocarbons and stop the hydrogen in its tracks. There are no known helium reserves on the planet that have been discovered by chance, and helium is almost always a by-product of natural gas extraction. There is no way to produce gas from anywhere in the world, and all reserves are extracted as a by-product of natural gas extraction, with the largest concentrations of helium in the vast oil and gas fields of southern and western America.

The US is the largest known source of natural gas and helium but it is not the only country with reserves. In comparison, the concentration of helium in the natural gas formations in the US is 0.3%, while in Qatar it is only 0.1%, says Jon Gluyas, a geologist at Durham University in the UK who advises helium prospectors. It turns out that Qatar has many by-products of helium thanks to its huge liquefied natural gas industry and is now one of the world’s largest suppliers of helium.

In March, demand for party balloons – which accounted for 10% or more of the total helium consumption – disappeared according to market consultant Phil Kornbluth – industrial demand slowed and concerted shelter-in-place orders that underpinned the global helium shortage of the last two years ended.

An unknown element called helium is a gas so inert and elusive that it took researchers decades to isolate it in the lab, in a groundbreaking paper published in Nature in 1920. American scientists also discovered large deposits of helium in natural gas fields in places like Kansas.

In a liquid state, as the coldest element, helium is used in superconducting magnets, for example in MRI scanners. Most crude helium is tapped from natural gas reserves, about 50% of which are pure, while the other gases are separated and scrubbed away. Helium can be recycled in magnetic resonance imaging, but it is also a waste: it is believed to be a cheap gas used to fill party balloons for party tricks or distortion the voices of people when inhaled.

It is trapped in various minerals and is collected in large forms in gas reservoirs where it can be extracted such as the Texas National Helium Reserve. Helium is also extracted from natural gas used by oil rigs to drill wells into the earth’s crust. As we find new reserves, we will become better stewards of our remaining reserves and over time we will learn to recycle helium gas before it is lost to space and we will begin to understand how to make new materials that are superconducting at higher and more accessible temperatures.

A law passed in 1996 in the United States made helium recycling cheaper and required the US National Helium Reserve to be stored in a disused underground gas field near Amarillo, Texas. This is now the largest helium storage facility in the world and sold to market prices in 2015. But GSP and Elsesser prefer to keep the reserves open, and they advocate royalties on helium sales to fund recycling technologies and research into alternative gases.