Firstly, we need to consider the different isotopes of Helium differently.
Shortage of Helium-3
Helium-3 is a
a rare isotope of helium with applications in
homeland security, national security, medicine, industry, and science
So, this isn't the stuff you use in balloons. The US had a stockpile, but it is dwindling. A shortage is predicted:
After the terrorist
attacks of September 11, 2001, the federal government began deploying neutron detectors at the
U.S. border to help secure the nation against smuggled nuclear and radiological material. The
deployment of this equipment created new demand for helium-3. Use of the polarized helium-3
medical imaging technique also increased. As a result, the size of the stockpile shrank. After
several years of demand exceeding supply, a call for large quantities of helium-3 spurred federal
officials to realize that insufficient helium-3 was available to meet the likely future demand.
Helium-3 is manufactured!
By far the most common source of helium-3 in the United States is the U.S. nuclear weapons program, of which it is a byproduct. The federal government produces tritium for use in nuclear warheads. Tritium decays into helium-3. This means that the tritium needs of the nuclear
weapons program, not demand for helium-3 itself, determine the amount of helium-3 produced.
The paper goes to discuss policy decisions and alternative sources that may need to be found to increase supply and reduce demand.
Shortage of Helium-4
99.999863% of the helium found in the atmosphere is helium-4.
Helium-4 is mined - it is refined from natural gas.
In 2007, the Bureau of Land Management reported that
The bottom line in terms of helium supply is that there is very little excess helium refining capacity, and domestic supplies of crude helium are growing ever tighter.
But the reason given wasn't that we were running out of Helium, but that there was a privatisation of the Helium supply by the USA (and corresponding reduction in stockpile), combined with delays in bringing up new factories and outages with existing ones.
The short answer is that demand is up and several overseas helium plants that were expected to be up and running in 2006 were delayed and down. Throw in things like the New Year’s storm in Kansas and Oklahoma that damaged power lines to two major refiners, and scheduled plant maintenance at other U.S. helium facilities, and Houston, we have a problem.
These are obviously short-term problems.
Looking much further into the future:
This paper contains an economic model predicting the supply and demand of Helium over the next century, under a range of scenarios. They do predict first a plateau, and then a decline in supply.
The model indicates that improving resource exploitation strategies might extend a production plateau that emerges in the 2030s.
They also predict that the wholesale price Helium will peak (in real terms) at about six times its 1991 levels.
Obviously, predictions 100 years into the future need to be treated with a grain of salt. (For example, who would have predicted the sudden increase in demand for helium-3 after 2001?) Nonetheless, even after accounting for increased prices making less efficient supply methods become profitable, this model predicts that Helium supplies will dwindle in 100-150 years.