When we talk about a shortage of "resources," most people immediately think "oil." But the only reason oil is the most famous of the dwindling resources is because we feel the spike in prices, since we have to go buy the stuff ourselves on a weekly basis.
But other resources that are key to keeping our society operating are running out just as fast, but much more quietly. Pretty soon, you may turn on CNN to hear about wars being fought over something ridiculous, like ...
The world is running low on helium? Big freaking deal, right? Worst-case scenario, future kids won't ever experience the joy of shelling out $7 for an amusement park balloon, then immediately tripping and seeing it fly away.
If only it were ever actually this much fun.
Actually, if you have benefited from a piece of technology more complex than a sharp rock tied to a stick, it was probably made with the help of helium. Helium has the lowest boiling point of all materials on Earth, which means it's cooler than a ninja Fonzie in sunglasses. Basically every high-tech industry imaginable has uses for helium, from chilling MRI magnets to producing fiber optics and LCD screens.
Think of it as the Batman of gases -- known for its playful public persona as the stuff that makes you talk like Jennifer Tilly, but secretly a badass vigilante keeping the modern world in one piece. And just like Batman, the government completely doesn't understand it.
All metaphors work best with Batman.
After all, if the stuff is running out, the price should be going up, right? And we sure as hell shouldn't be putting it in party balloons.
But according to Nobel Prize winner Robert Richardson, the problem is that the U.S. government is giving away helium like a discount VCR warehouse: as much as it can, as cheap as it can. In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring the U.S. government to sell off our helium stockpile by 2015. This has forced the price of the gas way, way lower than it should be, considering how little of the stuff is actually left in the world (Richardson says a balloon's worth would cost $100 if the market were allowed to set the price).
Above: The world's greatest helium baron plans her next acquisition.
The U.S. controls more than 80 percent of the world's helium supply, so Richardson says all this sell-off and waste means there's a very real chance we will run out of the gas in fewer than 25 years. If you're one of those people who buys into this whole "technology" fad, that's something to be concerned about.
Fortunately, there's a backup plan: If we run out of mined helium we can always recover it from the atmosphere. That will run us only 10,000 times the current costs.
"Next up for sale, an early 2011 red helium balloon. Starting price is $10 million."