The United States is on the verge of a crisis over a key strategic resource it once almost completely controlled.
It's a resource that's invisible, but critical to science and industry. MRI machines can't function without it.
Large research labs use it to conduct cutting-edge studies in areas such as particle accelerators and research magnets. It's also essential to scientists conducting research in a wide range of fields, including chemistry, biology, biophysics, nanotechnology, and astrophysics.
It is used in the production of everything from LCD screens to fiber-optic cables to the silicon chips used in PCs, cars, smartphones, and scores of other gadgets.
And all this just scratches the surface.
Trouble is, we're now experiencing a shortage and steadily increasing consumption means the world could completely run out of it in as little as 25 years.
That's a problem because in most cases there is no adequate substitute for it.
What is this critical strategic resource?
Believe it or not, it's helium. And in this case it about quite a bit more than party balloons.
As I'll explain later, there is even a silver lining for investors.
Government Screws up Big Time
The problem traces its roots to when Congress set up the Federal Helium Program in 1925.
Spurred on by the military's use of helium in airships, the program was created for the purpose of stockpiling the gas.
In all, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spent $1.3 billion amassing a huge supply of the gas in the Federal Helium Reserve facility near Amarillo, TX.
But the government ended up buying far more helium than it could ever use.
So in 1996 Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act, which mandated the Helium Reserve sell off its supplies and close the facility by the end of 2014.
But instead of selling the helium at market prices, the 1996 law instructed the Secretary of the Interior to set a price based on simply recovering the costs of shutting down the Helium Reserve and the $1.3 billion spent to fill it.
The result was years of artificially low helium prices, which sparked demand and killed the incentive to produce more.
Now the gap between supply and demand has started to force helium prices up. What's more, over the past year, several helium production facilities temporarily went offline for maintenance, creating a shortage that pushed prices even higher.
Today, the private market price for helium is nearly three times what it was a decade ago.