Helium – Going Through The Roof

Helium is a very interesting element. The second-lightest element, it has been used to fill “lighter than air” craft and party balloons for many years. More recently it has become extremely useful as a cryogenic agent for such applications as cooling the workings of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The problem with helium is that we’re using it much faster than we can make or find it — and that’s bad news for the future of technologies that rely on it. This of course, isn’t the first time I’ve written about helium. Back in 2007 I gave a heads-up regarding the looming shortage and again in 2010 I suggested that folk start buying helium futures. Anyone who took my advice back then would be “doing very nicely” by now. The price of helium has increased by a factor of 2.5 each year since 2008 and shows no sign of slowing. That story also suggests that there may be a huge spike in the price of helium in another seven years when the US closes its own strategic reserves. I just wish I had enough money to take advantage of my own suggestions in respect to the purchase of futures. If I’d been able to invest a few thousand dollars in neodymium and helium I’d be a wealthy man by now — as would any of my readers who did likewise. The message from all these meteoric price rises is that as a planet, we’re starting to run out of some essential elements on which increasing amounts of our technology are based.
A lack of focus on the conservation of these elements has meant that we’re rapidly finding ourselves facing shortages of materials for which there is often no alternative. Perhaps we should learn from this and increase our vigilance — treating even the most apparently worthless elements as perhaps becoming the vital components of future, as yet undiscovered technologies. Back in the 20th century, helium was just another noble gas which could be used to fill dirigibles as a much safer alternative to hydrogen. Few people thought back then that it would become an essential component of something as sophisticated as the LHC. Likewise, neodymium had no real applications until we began the transition from fossil fuels to electric power – but now it is the cornerstone of constructing very powerful permanent magnets. There are doubtless many other “low value” but relatively scarce elements that will see their prices soar as we develop technologies for which they become essential, so the savvy investors out there will keep an ear to the ground in the hope of spotting the next neodymium or helium before the rest of the market wakes up to their huge potential for price-growth. I wonder what suggestions readers can come up with. Which elements would you be buying into right now if you wanted an investment that was better than the local bank, silver or even gold?

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