Drained budgets and postponed projects are widespread these days among the physics labs, manufacturers, and other businesses that depend on helium for their work, direct consequences of a worldwide shortage of the element, which ironically is one of the most abundant on Earth.

For the last 10 years, groups around the US, including the American Physical Society, have been predicting that a severe shortage of the gas—which has many more valuable applications than filling party balloons—would emerge early in the 21st century. Pointing to a 1996 federal law that mandates sale of the federal helium reserve by 2015, they’ve warned that once the reserve—which supplies some 40% of domestic needs and 35% of worldwide requirements—is sold off, it can never be replaced.

The prophecies are already coming true, but for a different reason. The supply crimp that arose last year is the result of production glitches around the world that...

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