Q&A on the News

Q: Why would they build a new cargo airship that runs on helium? I thought we were having a shortage of helium? What is the future outlook of helium? Is it really in short supply or is the supply being throttled by government control?

—Chris Colhard, Atlanta

A: Worldwide Aeros Corp., Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are among the companies developing lighter-than-air vehicles as a more cost efficient way to move cargo, ferry supplies to front-line troops, transport refugees and etc. Aeros' craft is called Aeroscraft, which the company hopes will "revolutionize cargo transportation." Contracts with the Pentagon and NASA are funding $35 million of the Aeroscraft project. There is a global helium shortage because of a "complex interplay between commercial gas companies and the federal government," which has a helium reserve northwest of Amarillo, Texas, that produces about 30 percent of the world's helium, The New York Times reported. The shortage has been caused by many factors, experts say, including reduced financial incentives for foreign companies to produce helium and delays in the construction of helium producing plants around the world. The U.S. government has had a role in helium production since the early 20th century and effectively sets the global price for the element, according to The Times. Helium prices have increased nationwide, affecting the cost of the helium used to fill balloons of all sizes and the production of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, which use helium to cool magnets in the devices.

Andy Johnston wrote this column. Do you have a question about the news? We’ll try to get the answer. Call 404-222-2002 or email q&a@ajc.com (include name, phone and city).