Thanks to artificially low prices, helium reserves could be entirely depleted in 100 years—jeopardizing the space and nuclear industries, which use the element for crucial components and processes. That squeaky voice isn't so funny anymore, is it?

A U.S. law passed in 1996 requires the government to sell off a certain amount of helium every year from the U.S. National Helium Reserve in Texas, such that the entire reserve is sold off by 2015. Since supply outpaces the demand from companies that use helium for scientific and technological applications, the element's prices are kept low, and it ends up in the hands of birthday clowns and cartoon voiceover artists:

But in 1996, the US passed the Helium Privatisation Act which directed that this reserve should be sold by 2015 at a price that would substantially pay off the federal government's original investment in building up the reserve.

The law stipulated the amount of helium sold off each year should follow a straight line with the same amount being sold each year, irrespective of the global demand for it. This, according to Professor Richardson, who won his Nobel prize for his work on helium-3, was a mistake. "As a result of that Act, helium is far too cheap and is not treated as a precious resource," he said. "It's being squandered."

That's Nobel laureate Robert Richardson, who won his Nobel for work with helium-3 and has been sounding the alarm about what he sees as dangerously fast depletion of our global helium supply. According to Dr. Richardson, helium-filled party balloons should cost more like $100. After all, as he points out:

"Once helium is released into the atmosphere in the form of party balloons or boiling helium it is lost to the Earth forever, lost to the Earth forever."